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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Russian composers invade D.C.

Haochen Zhang plays Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 with Piotr Gajewski conducting the National Philharmonic at the Music Center at Strathmore/photo by Patricia Leslie

It was last month, and I do not think the Trump/Putin bromance (or sanctions or something worse?) had anything to do with the presentations since they were planned long before those two got together, and whatever, it was heaven!

The front row? The front row?

I got the last ticket on the front row at Strathmore.
Haochen Zhang plays Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 with Piotr Gajewski conducting the National Philharmonic at the Music Center at Strathmore/photo by Patricia Leslie
National Philharmonic Conductor Piotr Gajewski, right, and guest artist Haochen Zhang congratulate each other and the orchestra at the conclusion of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 at the Music Center at Strathmore/photo by Patricia Leslie

Starting off that weekend was the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center which played the Eighth Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) to celebrate what would have been the 90th birthday year of cellist and former NSO conductor and music director, Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-1997)


Shostakovich was one of the honoree's teachers whom Rostropovich called "the most important man in my life, after my father."

In the program, "A Salute to Slava" (the nickname for Rostropovich), violinist Gidon Kremer played a concerto by  Mieczys┼éaw Weinberg (1919-1996) under the direction of the renowned NSO Christoph Eschenbach (who's leaving the place, thanks to the perfectionists in this town who are never happy). 
 National Philharmonic Conductor Piotr Gajewski, right, and guest artist Haochen Zhang congratulate each other and the orchestra at the conclusion of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 at the Music Center at Strathmore/photo by Patricia Leslie

Kremer, one of the world's leading violinists and winner of many international prizes, began studying music at age four with his father and grandfather, both distinguished musicians themselves.  

Never have I seen as many people at the NSO as were there that Friday night, and half, I think, were Russians.  Many newcomers were in the hall, made known by their clapping between movements. But, they were there.
National Philharmonic Conductor Piotr Gajewski, right, and guest artist Haochen Zhang congratulate each other and the orchestra at the conclusion of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 at the Music Center at Strathmore/photo by Patricia Leslie


Then, two days later at Strathmore was my favorite composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), whose Piano Concerto No. 2 was played by the young and debonair, Haochen Zhang, under the direction of Piotr Gajewski for the National Philharmonic.

Was it possible, a dream that I sat on the front row? On the pianist's side?
Haochen Zhang completes Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 with National Philharmonic Conductor Piotr Gajewski at the Music Center at Strathmore/photo by Patricia Leslie

Only when I arrived at the Concert Hall did I realize the 
superb placement of my seat, the very last "cheap seat" ($23) which was available to me for purchase on Saturday, a gift to be seated just below Mr. Zhang's whip like fingers which I could watch move up and down the keyboard while he and Conductor Gajewski frequently exchanged meaningful glances.  

Or maybe that's the way it always is, between maestro and artist but my golden eagle's eye of what was happening lay before me.

Before Mr.Zhang touched one key, a hush filled the house, attendees knowing what pleasure awaited them (who did not clap between movements). 
National Philharmonic Conductor Piotr Gajewski, left, and Haochen Zhang congratulate each other at the Music Center at Strathmore/photo by Patricia Leslie
 
National Philharmonic Conductor Piotr Gajewski, left, and Haochen Zhang receive acclaim at the Music Center at Strathmore/photo by Patricia Leslie

Mr. Zhang did not have to watch his hands on the piano.  He frequently looked up at the conductor, waiting for a nod (or perhaps it was the other way around) while his fingers raced up and down the keyboard, and I believe his eyes were sometimes shut while he played, since my perspective, below and behind him, did not lend itself to confirm exactly what or where his eyes were doing or going.

But I could see his hair rustle when he leaped a few inches off the bench after a heavy pounding as if he had received an electrical shock. Meanwhile, the conductor weaved and bobbed and curled as if in Olympic competition, batonless, nodding, smiling when he turned halfway around to lock eyes with the guest star.

Pictures were verboten, but as I sat there and listened, I realized I would have to suffer the consequences and the anticipated verbal blows from those around me, because it was a gift, a gift, I tell you that I was there, right in that very seat, forced by circumstance to "fire away," and I did!

Heave ho!

Please forgive the poor quality of the photographs, but in stealth did I snap. And no one came to bid me "adieu" or much worse.

The best photograph would have had Mr. Gajewski standing in the background while he and Mr. Zhang exchanged glances, but I had to carefully choose timing for the crime (last movement, without clapping) in order to incur less wrath.  

(Before the performance began, I asked a startled usher who remained speechless but tried to smile, if I could take photos, please, during the presentation, and realizing my gaffe, told her: "We'll pretend we never had this conversation.")

Would anyone be surprised to learn Mr. Gajewski has a law degree, a license to practice law in two states, and formerly served on the city council in Rockville, Maryland?  He studied under Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa, Andre Previn, and is also the principal guest conductor of the Silesian Philharmonic in his native Poland.

Meanwhile, Mr. Zhang, 26, of China, a graduate of Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, won a gold medal at the Thirteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2009 and performs around the world.  

Also on the program and not to be overlooked was the memorable Symphony No. 8 by Antonin Dvorak, born (1841) and died (1904) in his native Czech Republic.

I was in love.  Just in time for Valentine's Day.

Next up for the National Philharmonic at Strathmore this Saturday, February 18, will be Brian Ganz to play Chopin's Nocturnes, Polonaises, Mazurkas, and Etudes, under the direction of Conductor Gajewski.

And over at Ken Cen February 16 - 18, violinist Hilary Hahn will join the NSO to play Mendelssohn, Strauss, Janacek, and Dvorak.

I believe I can attend both. 

patricialesli@gmail.com 

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