For six years I was lucky enough to study in Bologna, a very artistic and lively city where it’s easy to find classical music, both contemporary and experimental. The bad part was that these concerts were beyond the reach of a very thin student wallet. Another, more general aspect I didn’t like, were the unwritten rules – the audience must be absolutely silent and not move – which can make the “classical” experience very different from jazz, rock and reggae concerts.
Enter the Hollywood Bowl. For me it is paradise, a huge natural amphitheatre in the hills of Hollywood, that faces the mountains in the north and turns its back to the chaos of Los Angeles. The prices, which start at eight dollars, are accessible to everyone, and unlike most “classical” concerts the audience can pretty much do what they want. Okay, so there are some basic rules like don’t start yelling or talk on your cell phone during the performance. Aside from that people can do what they want. This includes my favorite tradition – bringing food and wine from home to enjoy with notes of Mozart’s or Tchaikovsky’s symphonies. For me this is a dream come true.
Last week I went with my wife and my friend Joe to hear Rachmaninov’s notorious third concerto, also called “Rach III.” Many even say that it’s the most difficult piano concerto ever written and it’s at the center of the story in the film “Shine.” It’s a romantic work divided into 3 movements: 2 fast movements divided by a sweetly nostalgic Adagio.
The pianist Yuja Wang played the piece perfectly, without slowing the tempo during the most difficult parts, a trap that many pianists fall in. She played so well that not even a single note was out of place. Actually, maybe she played too well, even Rachmaninov said that he couldn’t play this concerto without missing a note!
The only painful note (sorry for the pun) came with the cadenza. During a concerto the cadenza is pretty much an extended parenthesis in which the orchestra is silent and watches the pianist as she plays solo. It’s a critical moment that is often the most difficult for the pianist; however, if the cadenza is played right, she’s won the hearts of half the audience.
Rachmaninov wrote two different cadenzas for the concerto. The first is definitely my favorite. It’s tumultuous and dramatic; the pianist literally attacks the piano and treats it as though it were a percussion instrument. The second version is faster, lighter and more virtuoso.
Unfortunately Juja Wang decided to play the second cadenza … I had been waiting for that moment all day and I have to say that when I heard the opening notes I was a bit disappointed, but then I looked at the mountains around me and the open sky. I opened another beer and took a bite of the many arancini I had prepared for this occasion, I leaned back on the theater bench and I enjoyed one of the most beautiful piano concertos ever written.