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Biegel brings fire to Grieg

New York City-based pianist Jeffrey Biegel is no stranger to the classical music community here, and in the Rogue Valley Symphony's current Masterworks Concert series, his playing is as lucid and passionate as ever. Friday night at Southern Oregon University's Music Recital Hall, Biegel gave a stunning performance of Grieg's Piano Concerto, handling the familiar piece with a mix of fiery virtuosity and exquisite tenderness.

With a bit of programming elan, RVS Conductor Martin Majkut complemented Grieg's old warhorse with another familiar work from the standard classical repertoire, Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade," and a less-heard contemporary number, an excerpt from John Adams' 1987 opera "Nixon in China."

Biegel, who among other distinctions initiated the first-ever live Internet recitals in 1997 and assembled the largest consortium of orchestras ever (more than two dozen) to celebrate the turn of the millennium, rendered the concerto's fire and ice with equal depth of feeling. From the familiar, dramatic, descending theme that opens the piece along with the roaring cacophony of the timpani, his playing was assured and in command.

The concerto mixes bombast with ethereal moods as the allegro movement gives way to the adagio. After the early fireworks and before the latter ones, Biegel endowed the beautiful middle section with particular loveliness.

The crowd demanded an encore, and Biegel returned with a gift to any romantics in the audience: a lovely performance of Chopin's familiar Waltz No.7 in C-sharp minor.

The evening began with Majkut and the orchestra having a highly cinematic go at "The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra" from "Nixon in China." Adams set the opera at the time of President Richard Nixon's 1972 meeting with Mao Zedong. The unlikely subject was suggested to Adams by famed theater director Peter Sellars.

Adams has written that he quickly realized that the larger-than-life personalities involved (Nixon, Mao, Madame Mao, Chou En-lai, Henry Kissinger) were indeed the stuff of grand opera. He describes the foxtrot episode as an outtake from Act III of the opera.

The work depicts Mao's wife, the firebrand Chiang Ch’ing, better known as Madame Mao, showing up at an important banquet, getting in everybody's way by hanging decorative lanterns and doing a sexy dance.

Her theme, rendered in Adams' characteristic minimalism, is intoxicating and maybe a bit mad. As she dances, Chairman Mao steps out of one of those gigantic portraits of the Communist leader that used to hang all over China, comes to life and gets excited, joining his wife in an unlikely foxtrot.

The piece was alternately exciting and romantic, almost sexy, and sometimes slightly sentimental as you picture the old tyrants dancing, dreaming of a simpler, youthful, revolutionary past. The piece ended with the piano and percussion simulating a phonograph stylus reaching the end of an LP and dying out. One senses Adams' tongue is stuck a bit in his cheek, but it's a wonderful effect.

But the biggest piece on the program was Rimsky-Korsakov's 1888 "Scheherazade." One of the Russian composer's experiments in exoticism, the work was inspired by the tales of "1001 NIghts" collection of Arabic and Asian folk tales.

The first movement is full of themes about the sea (Rimsky-Korsakov trained as a naval officer), as is the last. In the story, the Sultan Schariar, who believed all women were faithless, decided to put to death each of his wives after one night in the conjugal bed. But Scheherazade so mesmerized him with her tales that he kept postponing executions.

The ominous weight of the cruel Sultan's motif was unmistakable, as was the lighter, brighter figure that represents our storyteller, Scheherazade. Her theme is a sinuous melody carried by violin solo and harp.

The second movement was fantastical and full of brass. The third, perhaps the simplest, provides some of the most memorable melodies, and the orchestra filled the tunes with exotic colors.

Rimsky-Korsakov himself downplayed the connection of his concerto with the "1001 Nights," some of which became widely known in Europe as the "Arabian Nights."

"All I had desired was that the listener, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders," he once explained.

That may be, and of course it's now a different world. But with the peaceful coda of the final movement, we realized that Scheherazade had once again won the Sultan's heart.

The concert will be performed again at 3 p.m. Sunday in the Grants Pass Performing Arts Center, 830 N.E. Ninth St, Grants Pass.

Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.