By Ted AYALA
Spring in January? The weather certainly seems to think so, bringing in some much needed warmth and sun after a month that soaked our state in deluge after deluge. Did the musicians of the Santa Cecilia Orchestra (SCO) somehow know something we don’t? Their mixed program of chamber and solo piano works by Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Piazzolla, Schumann and Mendelssohn as played by SCO concertmaster Yi-Huan Zhao, cellist Beth Park-Zhao and guest pianist Natasha Marin seemed to be just right for the unseasonable warmth we’ve been enjoying.
Yi-Huan Zhao began the evening with Natasha Rubin accompanying him in the first movement of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No.5 – the “Spring” Sonata. The raging, thunderbolt tossing Beethoven most music lovers are familiar with was given a rest in this work. This work presents Beethoven at his most relaxed. In the hands of
Yi-Huan Zhao, one could
almost see the Danube
rippling at one’s feet; Beethoven strolling through the Wienerwald lost in the beauty of nature. His warm and buttery tone was a marvel of bucolic sound-painting. Natasha Marin’s accompaniment was superb, providing a gentle backdrop to Zhao’s pastoral rhapsodizing.
Following Mr. Zhao was his wife Beth Park-Zhao on cello. In her hands she chiseled an immaculately phrased Rachmaninoff Vocalise of chaste and limpid beauty. Mrs. Park-Zhao knew to trust the music and allow it to speak on its own terms without needing to overpower it by tearing a passion to tatters. Again, Natasha Marin was impressive as the accompanist.
Natasha Marin finally had an opportunity to seize the spotlight for herself in a volatile and powerful rendition of Chopin’s Scherzo No. 1 for piano. Under her hands, she nearly pinned the audience to their seats with a fiery rendition of Chopin’s scherzo. Brilliant cascades of octaves held the audience captive. When the last chord resounded in the hall, the audience greeted her with very warm applause.
Following intermission, Mr. Zhao appeared again to play an excerpt from Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces. His was a dreamy interpretation of this lovely miniature; a sonic idyll.
Mrs. Park-Zhao took the stage in Argentinean composer Astor Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango. Piazzolla was one of the 20th century’s great musical originals. Flourishing in both popular and classical idioms, he found his voice that synthesized Argentine urban music with and the influences of Bartok and Stravinsky after encouragement from his teacher Nadia Boulanger. Le Grand Tango is a brilliant showpiece that demonstrated the sureness of touch Piazzolla as he strode the worlds of the café bar and the concert hall. Piazzolla’s music came to life under the hands of Park-Zhao and Marin. Both musicians were deeply attuned to Piazzolla’s dance rhythms, conjuring up the sight and scents of a smoky Buenos Aires tango bar.
The evening closed with all three musicians playing the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No.1. Mendelssohn’s graceful and endlessly beautiful music was allowed to unfurl naturally, with no histrionics or self indulgence. These three musicians fused their voices together seamlessly in the service of Mendelssohn’s evergreen music.
As an ensemble, the SCO is definitely no light weight, rag-tag orchestra that many regional orchestra can often be. Here in this chamber concert, we were allowed to hear up-close the individual strengths and impressive talent of some of its musicians. Any city should be happy to count such an ensemble of musicians within its borders. That we should have one so close to home and so affordably priced is a priceless treasure.