Pianist Henry Kramer plays Rachmaninoff — and wins — Hartford Courant
Opening day baseball has nothing against Henry Kramer. The guest pianist at the Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s latest MasterWorks concerts has chosen to tackle Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, widely regarded as the most difficult piece ever written for piano.
It’s not just a test of dexterity, control and aesthetics, but of endurance, lasting over 45 minutes and countless changes in mood and style.
The fact that Kramer had to delay this HSO appearance by two years due to COVID – having just done the concerto with another symphony in late 2019 – is a feat equivalent to the Red Sox home run in his last appearance of the last season and then hitting a Friday in the first inning of his first game back.
The remaining performances of the “Rachmaninoff & Tchaikovsky” Masterpieces concert are Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.
In full action while performing the concerto, Kramer embodies the image of a heroic athlete trying to set a new record. His poise and intensity are those of a champion who knows how to pace himself and has identified all potential obstacles in his path.
As in a sporting event, the symphony orchestra has a camera trained on Kramer, broadcasting his every move. Her hands flutter, twirling up and down the keyboard like wayward moths. More casual styles and fingering poses go out the window for a piece like this. The technique seems unique, created for this wonderful concerto.
The concerto is so complex, so demanding, so insistent that it sometimes becomes ridiculous. Every time he seems to calm down, there’s another huge challenge around the corner, another jaw-dropping push. Of course, as with any great act of athletics, it’s not just about rising to the challenge, it’s about bringing grace, style, purpose and personality to it. Kramer not only approached, memorized, practiced and perfected this piece; he absorbed it and saw it before our eyes.
The concerto is in three movements, each a great statement in itself. Together they transform simple melodies (thought by some scholars to be derived from folksongs) into bold new statements of sadness, anxiety and patience. The piano playing starts out soft, then grows lush, then haunting and spooky, then imposing and encompassing. The surrounding orchestra emphasizes the high points of the piano, transforming the strides into steps and the slides into flights. There are endless emotions to conjure up here, and it can be almost as exhausting for the audience to parry them as it is for Kramer to act them out.
Kramer went to the Yale School of Music, where he studied with the great Boris Berman. Before Yale, he was at Juilliard. After Yale, he taught, currently as the L. Rexford Distinguished Chair in Piano at the Schwob School of Music at Columbus State University in Georgia. He has won prizes in several international piano competitions.
Kramer was originally scheduled to perform this concerto in April 2020, following his performance with the Columbus Symphony in fall 2019. Then COVID happened. It was worth the wait.
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On Friday night, Kramer’s performance was greeted with a massive, genuine, enthusiastic ovation that also contained an expression of relief.
At the end of the concerto, Kramer lets go, leaning far back on the piano bench, dropping his hands to his sides and looking like he just ran a marathon because he did. Then he plays again, an unannounced relaxation exercise which, compared to the hurricane he has just blown, is calm and restful and necessary for us all to relax and get back in order.
“Follow that!” as Jerry Lee Lewis would have said one day headlining after literally setting his piano on fire in the first set. This is where home team pride and clever programming come in. After serving as the accompanist to a sensational soloist for an hour, the symphony shows what it’s capable of as a unit. Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor is a showcase of collective effort. It builds slowly, enveloping the listener in a whirlwind of sounds. As always, conductor Carolyn Kuan is magical in the way she can extract a melody of patterns from these progressively cohesive sounds and leave these themes hanging in the air for you to clearly grasp and almost see. Such teamwork, such clarity and purpose, is a feat of symphonic strength just as impressive, if not as flashy, as Kramer’s solo. That’s what makes an orchestra an orchestra.
The piano may be the center of attention for the first hour, but then you enjoy everything else.
The Hartford Symphony Orchestra has three more MasterWorks concerts in its 2021-22 season. “From the New World,” postponed to February due to COVID, will now take place May 26 between the sitar-infused “Scheherazade & Shankar” concert from May 6-8 and the season-ending show “Beethoven’s Ninth,” which also offers Concerto for saxophone quartet and orchestra by Philip Glass, from June 10 to 12.
The final performance of “Rachmaninoff & Tchaikovsky,” part of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s MasterWorks series, is Sunday at 3 p.m. at Bushnell’s Belding Theater, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. $38 to $72. Mandatory masks. hartfordsymphony.org.
Christopher Arnott can be reached at [email protected].