It was only a minor glitch in last Saturday’s sensational concert, but right after intermission and barely one minute into Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Maestro Kent Nagano stopped the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) to allow its principal English horn player to make some much needed adjustments to his instrument, which had become almost completely unresponsive during a crucial part of the introduction.
After a brief clarification, which Nagano started off in French until he realized he was back on the stage where he has led the Berkeley Symphony for three decades, the flawless restart of the Rite reduced the incident to a mere ripple in an otherwise exceptional and wonderfully coherent concert of early 20th century musical delights, including a breathtaking performance by Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3.
Rounding out the program for Cal Performances at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall was a gorgeous and richly detailed Jeux by Claude Debussy as an opening treat. In this so-called poème dansé (danced poem), Nagano’s firm hand brought out the many shades of Montreal Symphony’s bright string section, and the introspective nature of the piece — and its execution — were transporting.
Trifonov’s performances are always otherworldly and spectacular, but what he managed with Prokofiev’s third piano concerto verges on the incredible. The piece itself combines high-energy, almost manic progressions of musical wit and sarcasm with sections that could be part of the dreamy, fairy-tale soundscapes of a composer like Debussy.
During his performance, Trifonov engaged his instrument in a jagged choreography, hovering over his keyboard, then diving into it and making it come alive under his touch, his body recoiling from the force of his fingers hitting the keys during the many intensely virtuosic passages.
The unexpected excitement of the first movement’s finale brought the Berkeley crowd to an enthusiastic and justified applause, but that was nothing in comparison with the storm of cheers that broke loose after the concerto’s third and final movement.
Trifonov returned the favor with a surprising encore in the form of the Prelude of Bach’s Partita in E Major for solo violin, in a version by Sergei Rachmaninoff, in which he beautifully favored the Rachmaninoff aspect of the transcription over the Bach part.
The “restarted” Rite of Spring was the perfect programmatic complement to Debussy and Prokofiev, and even though the OSM’s wind section couldn’t quite compensate for Zellerbach’s acoustic disadvantages as a symphonic concert venue (trumpets always sound like they are back stage; and leading voices in brass and woodwinds often get drowned out by the strings, for instance), Nagano and his orchestra left no doubt that they are a world-class combination.
Adding to the concert’s already generous musical abundance, they played two encores: Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, and the Prelude from Bizet’s L'Arlésienne Suite No. 1.