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Pianist Inon Barnatan shines in Charlotte Symphony’s night of Tchaikovsky

Sep 28, 2019

By Lawrence Toppman, Arts Correspondent
The Charlotte Observer

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto irritated dedicatee Anton Rubinstein, the pianist and conductor who refused to premiere it as written. It made its 1875 debut not in Russia but Boston; the composer wanted it as far away as possible, in case it tanked. There an under-rehearsed orchestra struggled with it, and most critics left scratching their heads in bewilderment or shaking them in disapproval.

Yet 126 years after Tchaikovsky's death, it remains one of the three most popular piano concertos by any reckoning. (The others might be Rachmaninoff's second and ... whatever you like best.) That's partly because of keyboard fireworks, partly because of jump-to-your-feet orchestral crescendos, partly because of melodic hooks: The opening theme alone inspired two top-10 pop hits, Freddy Martin's "Tonight We Love" and Jackie Wilson's "Alone at Last."

But it's really because the music can be all things to all pianists, and thus all audiences. Soloists can thunder, whisper, show off, draw deep inside themselves, be patricians or pummelers or poets and they'll be right, as long as the performance has sincerity.

Inon Barnatan made his debut with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra on Friday night, and he was right, too. Delicacy met strength in his playing, as he dug beneath the familiar tunes to mine veins of subtle feelings. Suddenly Tchaikovsky acquired not just the desired tenderness but unexpected mystery. The music seemed entrancingly new.

In fact, the whole Knight Theater concert unfolded that way. The CSO dubbed the program "Tchaikovsky's Greatest Hits," a reasonable title for an event that included "Capriccio Italien" and the Fifth Symphony. Music director Christopher Warren-Green, whether working with Barnatan or not, found something to reveal about all three pieces.

Tchaikovsky's homage to Italy, often done as a whirlwind of sound, had grandeur instead of giddiness. These carnival celebrants, aristocrats rather than half-tipsy plebeians, displayed a reserved gaiety that let us savor the sheen of the strings and the elegance of the brass. The Fifth Symphony glowed in the same way, its emotions expressed with dignity yet depth.

Musicians played with a sureness and unity they haven't always shown. That gives the audience a sense of security, whether we're hearing the famous moonlit horn solo of the Fifth Symphony -- so easy to bobble, but well-handled by Byron Johns -- or little wind solos that dart in and out of orchestral parts in the concerto's slow movement.

The players seemed better attuned than usual to each other, to Warren-Green, even to Barnatan in the concerto. He drew them and us in close with his approach. After the magisterial opening, where big chords ring out assertively, he showed his intention: to play softly and more slowly than usual, not in a melancholy way (often a default choice with Tchaikovsky) but reflectively, as if choosing every note on the spot.

The calm second section and merry finale, an outburst of joy where pyrotechnics have their place, allowed him to vary his moods beautifully. He gave this keyboard warhorse a fresh run to glory in all three movements, something I'd have thought impossible after 50 years of acquaintance with it. Glad I was wrong.

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