A Dazzling Celebration of Gary Graffman’s 90th birthday

Giancarlo Guerrero
Seen and Heard International

Everything conspired to make this concert at once a worthy celebration of Gary Graffman’s 90th birthday and a musical experience worthy of the much-loved former Curtis president’s lofty standards.

Considered in advance, the program seemed to promise more in the way of variety than of stylistic interconnection. It looked as if there would be something for everybody: a curtain-raiser from a contemporary American composer who actually — in contrast, I fear, to some of her colleagues — writes music, followed by one of the world’s favorite big romantic piano concertos, and then after intermission by a perennial ‘modern classic’ (if a work whose original version is already into its second century in the repertoire can really be called ‘modern’).


Possessed of a no less intense seriousness (leavened by disarming flashes of humor), Maestro Guerrero, whose manner on the podium is at once authoritative and at the same time warmly collaborative, seems to be at home in a wide range of styles. When the music wants to dance, he dances with it, though never overdoing body language to the point of distraction. Particularly notable is what he can do with his left hand. When Pierre Boulez famously used his two arms to delineate vividly differentiated rhythms, the effect tended to be merely that of a technical tour de force. With Guerrero, by contrast, fingers that seem gracefully capable of operating quite independently of each other evoke a wealth of expressive nuance, rather in the way that both of Leopold Stokowski’s hands used to do all those years ago. (Sviatoslav Richter, amazingly, was able to summon a comparably polychromatic range of color and expression within a chord or line with each of the keys his individual fingers touched.)

But it was the delicacy of Guerrero’s way with textures and dynamics that most refreshingly revealed unsuspected aspects in a work that is by no means unfamiliar. The exceptional clarity of balance that allowed woodwinds and brass to sing through the texture immediately established the concerto’s unexpected aptness as a sympathetic program partner to Thomas’s piece. The music’s assertive moments thereby made a more telling contrast than they sometimes do, and the caressing sheen of soft string tone in the slow movement, matched eloquently near the end of the finale, completed the picture of an intellectually fascinating concerto strikingly different from the composer’s even more popular, and much more corporeal, No.2, with its prevailing saturated richness of sonority.
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