West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s “Valentina Returns” concerts were held at The Clay Center’s Maier Foundation Performance Hall this past weekend with the titular guest pianist Valentina Lisitsa. Valentina accompanied Maestro Grant Cooper and his magnificent orchestra through performances of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Concerto for Piano No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26” and Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 (Pastorale).”
This season marks Maestro Cooper’s tenth year as Artistic Director and Conductor of the WV Symphony, and Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa was the guest soloist at his first performance with the orchestra a decade ago. During the pre-performance “Preludes” discussion with Maestro Cooper Saturday night, Valentina revealed she has accumulated fifty concerti in her repertoire since then.
Born in Kiev and currently residing in rural North Carolina, the glamorous Valentina jokingly refers to herself as a “redneck pianist.” She began playing piano when she was just three years old and had her first solo recital at the age of four.
She lists Beethoven and Rachmaninoff among her favorite composers, but said she only became a fan of Rachmaninoff – whom she previously considered “too sentimentally Russian” – after her move to the U.S. Then, she said, “it was love for me.”
After likening the daunting transition from piano competitions to symphonic concerts to a competitive iceskater joining a professional ballet troupe for a performance of Swan Lake, Valentina said: “You play music and try to make people cry a little bit.”
Between “Preludes” and the main performance, members of the WV Symphony’s horn section entertained guests milling about in The Clay Center’s lobby.
I was most excited to hear the symphony perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6,” since Beethoven is my second favorite composer after Frédéric Chopin. Also known as “The Pastorale Symphony,” Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6” was written to represent his love of nature.
Beethoven is famously quoted as calling the work “more an expression of feeling than painting.” He also said of the symphony: “Anyone who has an idea of country life can make out for himself the intentions of the composer without many titles” and “Surely woods, trees, and rocks produce the echo that man desires to hear.” Such sentiments made this scenic piece of music perfectly suited to our Appalachian state.
“Symphony No. 6” is one of the few works that Beethoven named and its full title was “Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Country Life.” I do wish more classical works had such short, memorable names, as I can never remember all those numeric titles!
Each of the five moments evokes emotional responses experienced during a walk in the countryside, beginning with the initial “Awakening of cheerful feelings on arriving in the country” movement. Each jaunty step of the journey was propelled by the orchestra’s spirited string section as led by Concertmaster and first violinist, Amelia Chan.
The pretty and pristine second movement, titled “Scene at the Brook,” found the strings imitating the sounds of flowing water and culminated with a bird-like flutter of flute.
The more buoyant third movement picked up the tempo to mimic a “Happy Gathering of Country Folk.” Its gentle merriment ended abruptly with the first drops of rain.
The sound of falling rain ushered in the tempestuous fourth movement, “Thunderstorm,” which eventually tremored with violent thunder and lightning. The storm dissipated slightly, but lingered as a subtle introduction to the fifth movement. The finale was a joyous “Shepherd’s Song” of thanksgiving at the passing of the storm.
Beethoven may not have viewed this composition as a painting, but each note he penned perfectly conjured up the panoramic images he wished to convey with the piece and the WV Symphony gorgeously brought it to life. As I heard someone exclaim during intermission, they “sure play a mean thunderstorm!”
Valentina and her piano then joined the Symphony on stage for Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s “Piano Concerto No. 3.” I must admit I’m not as well versed in Sergei Prokofiev’s repertoire as I am with Beethoven’s, but he is considered to be one of the greatest composers of the last century. And his work – including portions of “Piano Concerto No. 3” – has often been compared to Sergei Rachmaninoff, who is also one of my favorite composers.
Prokofiev’ first began work on the three-movement concerto in 1913, but didn’t complete it until 1921. According to the Symphony program, Prokofiev gleaned portions of the work from an abandoned string quartet he’d been writing using only the “white notes” of the piano. Despite a lackluster reception when it debuted, the concerto has since become one of Prokofiev’s most popular and critically-acclaimed works.
Like many of the greats, Prokofiev was a child protege who mastered the piano by the age of five and composed his first opera by the age of nine. He was also known for his ego as an adult, though this arrogance seems to have been limited to his compositions. I’ve read several quotes indicating he was very self-conscious about his own playing abilities, particularly when attempting his more difficult works.
His innovative compositions were sometimes controversial with the general public, but the critics hailed him as brilliant. He counted among his more famous fans composers Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel.
What I personally enjoyed most about the Prokofiev piece was how beautifully the arrangement balanced the piano with the rest of the orchestra. Symphonic solos are tricky things, often resulting in one instrument either overshadowing or weakening the entire orchestra. But Prokofiev’s concerto allowed for a lovely and lively, almost acrobatic interplay between Valentina and the other musicians.
A clarinet opened and led the first movement as the orchestra joined in to expand the melody. Valentina’s piano came alive in a sudden burst of exhilarating, crashing rhythm. The entire movement was full of dramatic, intricate nuances, including an almost militant march toward the end. The audience was so astounded by Valentina’s playing that they broke the unspoken ban on applause between movements.
The second movement initially took a step back for a slower display of the piano, but soon the orchestra was struck up again for an exciting, playful race with Valentina’s nimble fingers. This middle section of the piece genre-hopped a bit with jazzy variations on the main theme, which melted into a lovely, slightly eerie calm before exploding again. This flare of full-bodied sound ebbed and flowed, then disappeared into the original theme.
The third movement broke the harmony that preceded it, and Prokofiev apparently deemed the finale an “argument” between the piano soloist and the rest of orchestra. It did seem like Valentina’s frenzied piano was bickering with the horns and strings, as they kept interrupting and contradicting each other. That push and pull churned the orchestra and the tempo of the piece up, building anticipation for a grand crescendo. But the concerto continued to be full of surprising twists and turns. The noise took a sudden drop as the woodwinds danced with Valentina’s keys through a slow, gorgeously quiet theme. Then the argument resumed and finally came that climatic surge and resolution.
A standing ovation prompted two encores by Valentina, who allowed the audience to choose between Chopin, Liszt, and Beethoven. I was overjoyed that those of us who shouted “Chopin!” won out. She gave a splendid tribute to my favorite composer. As the lights came on, a man behind me remarked, “quite of a pair of hands…gorgeous.” I wholeheartedly agree.
Cameras and recording devices were prohibited, so I have no audio or photographs from this performance to share.
WV Symphony Official Site