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How can it be:  a piano recital without music by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, or Rachmaninov??  Well, it can be wonderful, if someone like Roman Rabinovich created “An Homage to Picasso” that uses piano music to describe the Zeitgeist of the Picasso era.  

Roman Rabinovich at Detroit’s Orchestra Hall

But first, a look at an earlier era, when Spanish missionaries tried to promote beautiful music as a way to Christianize the indigenous South Americans (remember the movie “The Mission”?)  Domenico Zipoli was one of them.  His utterly charming Keyboard Suite # 2 is so reminiscent of his contemporary Domenico Scarlatti’s music, much more so than the music of his other contemporaries J.S. Bach and G.F. Handel.  Both Zipoli and Scarlatti were Italians who threw themselves into the Spanish style of the day.

(By sheer coincidence, this very evening as Roman was ending his concert, PBS Detroit was airing “Now Hear This!”, featuring, yes, Scarlatti!  Prepared, I set my VCR machine beforehand, and thus, had it taped:  it put Roman, the Domenicos, and early Spanish music all together for me!)

Claude Debussy, like Picasso in painting (but even more like his contemporaries’ Impressionists), forged a new musical style, using the “odd” scales, like the Pentatonic and Arabic .  The “Estampes” are picture postcards of southeast Asia (gamelan effects), Granada, and gardens in the rain.  A great piece!  Mr. Rabinovich has an incredibly clean attack.  Watching his hands move beautifully with his curled fingers cascading up and down the keyboard (especially in “Gardens in the Rain”), while the left hand crosses over in staccato beats is a pleasure to the eye as well as to the ear.

It is always welcome to have an Erik Satie piece in a program.  His Gnossienne # 1 is so full of surprising intervals, even after numerous hearings.  This work was paired with Roman’s own composition, “Clown on a Bicycle”.  He suggested both opuses could be exemplified by Picasso’s “Blue Period” and one can visualize that easily, as clowns were a  frequent theme of that time.  Really excellent visualization of an awkward clown trying to negotiate the mysteries of riding a bicycle!  Ridi, Pagliacco!, indeed!    Mr. Rabinovich is so multitalented!  Pianist, composer, artist:  his Composers sketch in the program is, to me, a work of genius.

(By the way, I again interrupt to thank Pro Musica’s Harry Pevos for his insightful program notes, and, on this night, the DIA generous lending a grand piano for this concert, as all three of Orchestra Hall’s pianos were being used for the DSO’s Opening Night Weekend’s concerts.  {The things that happen behind the scenes!!  Only in live performances!!!})

The first half of the program ended with George Gershwin’s splendid “Three Preludes”, the outer two full of fiery rhythms, and the central beautiful “blues lullaby”.  So very satisfying!  And, yes, Picasso’s “Three Musicians” fits the piece’s character.  And I’ll take that middle movement every day of my life….

Francisco Goya’s works are portrayed by Enrique Granados’s “Goyescas”.  I liked the interplay between the left and right hands in “The Maiden and the Nightingale”, the melody mostly in the right hand but the left hand would have its turn as well.  Roman made sure of that, bringing out that left hand strongly.  In the “Fandango”, the swaying melody was accompanied by the piano-sounds of the castanettes:: brilliant work by our artist picturing flamenco dancers.  The third, “Balada”, shows the influence of Chopin and Liszt.  The listener is not prepared for the darkness to follow, but that was Goya’s story, too.  Death is coming, and though Granados wasn’t around for the Spanish Civil War, he might have had a premonition of the carnage of Guernica, and that was the subject of Picasso’s greatest work.  

Finally, Stravinsky’s most Russian composition, “Petrouchka”, from which Mr. Rabinovich excerpted three movements.  If it can be said that, up to now, Roman’s program had been somewhat understated, he let it all out in this blockbuster.  Russian Dances” showed his expertise in percussive playing, hammering chords and glissandos.  The humorous “Petrouchka”s Cell, or Home, with its quirky tunes and harmonies and “squeeze-box” effects were a delight, and then, the “Shrovetide Fair” brings the house down.  It’s frightfully difficult to play, with its rapid and wild jumps, fast scales, glissandos, and tremolos, but great pianists love the challenge, and Rabinovich passed this with flying colors.  Bravo to the virtuoso!!  

Roman rewarded us with the final movement of Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat Major.  He has made a recording project of all of Haydn’s works for piano.

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