Democrat and Chronicle
October 20, 2001

Guest artists bring out emotion in RPO

By JOHN PITCHER, Staff Music Critic

Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 turns 100 next month.  It's been a repertory staple since its premiere, and though it has become a tired old warhorse over the years, it still seems as popular as ever.

This weekend, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra is featuring the Second Piano Concerto as part of its all-Russian program at the Eastman Theatre, and it has found a worthy if somewhat idiosyncratic Rachmaninoff champion in its guest soloist, pianist Eduardus Halim.

Halim was the legendary Vladimir Horowitz's last student, a remarkable fact given the old Russian's prejudices.  For most of his career, Horowitz refused to accept asian students since he believed they were in capable of properly interpreting Western music.  Horowitz also showed a certain lack of interest in serious, probing interpreters, preferring instead to teach charismatic young artists with lots of superficial technical razzle-dazzle; in other words, Horowitz liked students who played the way he did.

To his credit, Halim –born in Indonesia to Chinese parents – changed Horowitz's opinion about Asian musicians.  And judging from his performance with the RPO on Thursday, it's easy to see why Horowitz liked him.  Halim is a virtuoso of the first rank.  His hands are not enormous, but they are extremely elastic, and so he had little trouble tackling Rachmaninoff's dense music.

His performance of the concerto's opening was breathtaking.  Most pianists play the massive chords that open the concerto as arpeggios – that is, they roll the chord notes from bottom to top in quick succession, which in effect is a kind of cheating.  Halim, with his elastic hands, played all of the notes of the biggest chords simultaneously – something you almost never hear.

As an interpreter, Halim was a true original, to put it mildly.  His tempos could be arbitrary – he'd speed up a phrase, he'd slow it down, whatever suited his mood.  But his playing wasn't mannered.  It was almost the opposite – dry, objective, even antiromantic.  It was deeply personal and made something fresh out of Rachmaninoff's cliché – a real accomplishment.  And as Horowitz said, it's better to exaggerate than say nothing.

Guest conductor Daniel Hege opened with a perfunctory rendition of Glinka's Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla and closed with an extraordinary performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5.  The RPO has a way of rising to the occasion when playing the most demanding music, and its reading of the Shostakovich symphony was powerful, lyrical and intensely emotional.