Orchestra pays tribute to Cliburn at Mann

Posted: August 04, 2013

The Philadelphia Orchestra remembered pianist Van Cliburn Thursday at the Mann Center, not with eulogies but with a program to remind listeners of the regenerative power of music.

The Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 anchored the program, as often happened with Cliburn, but this time the soloist was Vadym Kholodenko, 26, the Ukrainian-born winner of the 14th Van Cliburn Competition, making his local debut and launching a U.S. tour.

Cliburn's long history with the Orchestra began in 1958 at the Brussels World's Fair when he played as a national hero after winning the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. It was at the Mann that Cliburn returned to the stage in 1989 from an 11-year burnout hiatus to show that while his charisma had not faded, some of his pianism had. The Mann and the Orchestra had become a favorite setting and partnership.

Thursday's tribute edged toward the ghoulish, as the Mann had brought Cliburn's piano from Texas. He had played Tchaikovsky so often on that Steinway that it seemed possible the instrument might play by itself.

But with Kholodenko, the instrument, and the concerto, showed refreshing vitality, showcasing a thoughtful and enterprising talent. The pianist made no gesture toward emulating Cliburn. He found absorbing melodic shadings, glittering passage work, and a sense of sound that erased any fears about the stereotype of the competition winner.

The music progresses through reference, and Kholodenko played each movement as a complete unit, with references reinforcing and recalling elements along the way. Some passages that have become pure virtuosic effect in modern performance became expressive, lyrical suggestions in the total architecture.

That approach ennobled the slow movement, arguably the finest part of the performance. The focus of the melodic line, the care with which single notes were placed in the long phrases, and the nuanced color throughout showed a potent mind at work.

Bold virtuosity elsewhere sounded celebratory, not self-justifying, and brought the audience to its feet.

Kholodenko played an encore in a different mood. In Tchaikovsky's "Russian Lullaby," he showed the grandeur of soft playing, shaded colors, and the power of simple, carefully expressed melodies. The hush that greeted the final notes probably rewarded the soloist as much as the tumult after the concerto.

Cristian Macelaru led the orchestra in strong support on a night when the humidity dampened string sound and robbed the ensemble of its glow. The Prelude to Die Meistersinger, for all the boldness of the playing, sounded confined, and even Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, with its virtuosic string writing, brass flourishes, and sinuous clarinet work, missed sonic brilliance. Waltzes from Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, played last, showed more of the orchestra's color, but the elements favored the arrival of a pianist with no sonic failings.

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