The Lexington Philharmonic closed its season Friday with a frankly underwhelming program. The music-making itself was fine, but the chosen repertoire presented challenges perhaps unforeseen though certainly not overcome.
The first half of the concert was devoted to a traversal of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, one of the largest and most difficult of all concertos, with young pianist Han Chen substituting for previously announced Chu-Fang Huang.
Chen, an undergraduate student at Juilliard, is a wisp of a man, and his delicate youthfulness elicited a murmur from the audience when he first walked onstage. He is a superb pianist and rendered the Rachmaninoff about as perfectly as it can be played, with technical precision and elegant phrasing. Despite the note-perfect pianism, however, Chen's playing was seriously underpowered. Even in solo passages, he could hardly be heard in the back of the large Concert Hall at the Singletary Center for the Arts. At times, he could be seen throwing his little body into a chord for more sonority, but to no avail. The "Rach 3" requires a huge sound and Chen simply could not muster it, especially not on the inadequate grand piano offered him by the Singletary Center.
I also found his playing to be under-emotive in the lyrical passages. Another hallmark of Rachmaninoff's music, besides power, is passion, and Chen should have matched the orchestra in imbuing the melodies with fervor. Often, the instrumental responses interplaying with the piano were more colorful and interesting than the soloist's presentation. By the same token, Chen could have played with much more bravura in the flashy sections of passagework. All in all, he is a gifted young pianist who will undoubtedly grow into this very grown-up work.
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The orchestra played the concerto beautifully, with a plush sound, giving an especially gorgeous prelude to the second movement. Music director and conductor Scott Terrell was very attentive to the soloist throughout the concerto, and the orchestra worked hard to support Chen's light touch. The audience rewarded the musicians' efforts with a sustained ovation.
The second half of the program featured a contemporary work, Ellis Island: The Dream of America by Peter Boyer, with multimedia and theatrical elements. The piece is a suite of musical interludes loosely strung together between monologues of European immigrants arriving at the New York port from 1908 to 1940, which are also underscored by the orchestra.
The undistinguished music is highly derivative of typical styles of musical Americana. Think "John Williams lite." The music of the quieter moments was anodyne, while the big surges bordered on the banal.
Similarly, the monologues were curiously unmoving, more sentimental in content than truly profound, although audibility was again a huge issue, so it is difficult to assess the real impact of the speeches.
This is only partially the fault of Project SEE Theatre, the acting troupe that presented the monologues under the direction of Michael Bigelow Dixon. The amplification of the actors was muddy in the cavernous hall, so it was incumbent upon them to speak with articulate diction and exaggerated vocal expression so that the monologues could carry across the footlights, so to speak. In this regard, the women, Ellie Clark and Patti Heying, were better than the men, Evan Bergman and Walter Tunis (who is a contributing music writer for the Herald-Leader and LexGo.com); unfortunately, they all spoke with cinematic realism rather than with stage elocution, so much of the meaning was lost despite the eloquence of their physical acting.
All four gave worthy performances apart from that key element, especially Heying's role as a Jewish refugee from Belgium during World War II.