SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS: Music Review: Symphony Silicon Valley and Nobilis Trio

By Richard Scheinin
Posted:   01/26/2014 11:38:49 AM PST

Trio Nobilis: Pianist Stephen Prutsman, left, violinist Ruggero Allifranchini and cellist Suren Bagratuni. Photo courtesy of Symphony Silicon Valley.

Trio Nobilis: Pianist Stephen Prutsman, left, violinist Ruggero Allifranchini and cellist Suren Bagratuni. Photo courtesy of Symphony Silicon Valley. ( Symphony Silicon Valley )

Symphony Silicon Valley’s exciting Saturday program began without the orchestra. That’s right. The Nobilis Piano Trio — three musicians, alone — played an arrangement of themes by Tchaikovsky. It was elegant and heartfelt. It instantly gripped the audience. It established a benchmark for this varied and imaginative program at the California Theatre.

Nobilis performed a work by its pianist Stephen Prutsman: his Paraphrase on Themes from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.” It swings between the Russian’s arching operatic melodies and his brisk dances; an artful alternation of high romance and plain tension. Prutsman, who lives in San Francisco, is a commanding player, and so are his two colleagues: violinist Ruggero Allifranchini (who is associate concertmaster of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, where Prutsman once was an artistic director) and cellist Suren Bagratuni, a widely-traveled soloist.

The easy and fiery exchanges among these three musicians carried into the program’s next piece: Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano in C major: the “Triple Concerto.” Perhaps because Guillermo Figueroa, the program’s guest conductor, is himself an accomplished violinist, this performance of the Triple had a special chamber-like intimacy and flow. Textures were transparent, tempos flexible. The concerto is a complex construction — meshing the trio, as “soloist,” with the orchestra proper — but the piece breathed here, so naturally.

Figueroa divided the strings in the old way: first violins on the left, seconds on the right; cellos and violas in the middle; basses over on the left. Perhaps this also contributed to the performance’s many strengths: for instance, the warmth and clarity of the strings in the Allegro, arriving in waves and later building like a storm, in that quintessential Beethovenian way.

There were many highlights within the trio, including Prutsman’s pearly tone and his innate sense for varying dynamics in a simple phrase. Looking nothing but relaxed, the pianist delivered with sheer authority, consistently. Allifranchini displayed his own quicksilver technique and a singing, sturdy-sweet sound. Bagratuni drew a deep golden tone from the cello; superb. His keening entrance in the Largo was another high point, though he seemed to suffer some finger fatigue midway through the finale. (His part is a notoriously difficult one.)

In any event, this was a dashing and emotional performance of the Triple; memorable.

But this concert was only at its midpoint.

After intermission, Prutsman returned, this time as soloist for Richard Strauss’s Berleske in D minor for Piano and Orchestra, a single-movement concerto, essentially. It is rarely played, possibly because the solo part is so absurdly difficult — a roller-coaster, muscular, glitzy and glamorous, tender and dolorous. He played it from memory, brilliantly.

The piece is strange and fascinating and ought to be performed more often. Dating to 1885, it’s a kind of precursor to Ravel’s “La Valse,” from 1920, in that it feels like a fever dream announcing the end of an era: elegant and waltzing, yet world-weary and sad, conveying a sense of decay, of decadence.

It begins with a motto for timpani, a theme that gets developed throughout the piece, which keeps subsiding into unusual conversations: between timpani and piano, say, or between timpani, piano and winds. Rhythmically treacherous, the score is a real workout; Saturday, the orchestra pulled it off with gusto. Hats off to Figueroa and all the players, and especially to timpanist Robert J. Erlebach Jr.

The concert could have, and maybe should have, ended there, at this exhilarating (and exhausting) high point. But the orchestra had yet to play a work entirely on its own, and Figueroa now led it through Liszt’s symphonic tone poem “Les Préludes.” The conductor brought due emphasis to the work’s forest themes (those horns) and mythic ascents, but he wasn’t afraid to create a plain old pretty sound, either. Sonically rich, earthy and passionate, the orchestra’s performance was a pleasure.

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Symphony Silicon Valley

Guillermo Figueroa, guest conductor
With the Nobilis Piano Trio: Stephen Prutsman,
piano; Ruggero Allifranchini, violin; Suren Bagratuni, cello
When: 2:30 p.m., Sunday
Where: California Theatre, 345 South First St., San Jose
Tickets: $41-$83, at the box office

NY Times: “Voyage Across Centuries, with Bach as Anchor”

New York Times Music Review
Published: December 6, 2010

Few musicians have had such a wide-ranging musical life as the American pianist Stephen Prutsman. In his teens and 20s in California he played keyboards in rock bands and piano in jazz clubs. But he had thorough conservatory training and won prizes in major international competitions. He has explored world music, arranging and composing some 40 genre-blending works for the Kronos Quartet. His song cycle “Piano Lessons” was given its American premiere this season by Dawn Upshaw and Emanuel Ax at Carnegie Hall.

On Sunday afternoon at Alice Tully Hall, Mr. Prutsman brought the strands of his interests together in a fascinating recital program titled “Bach and Forth,” presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Using Bach as a point of reference, he played 12 preludes and fugues from Book 2 of the “Well-Tempered Clavier” and a pair of gavottes from the English Suite No. 6, alternating them with music ranging from an elegiac ancient Uzbek folk song to the wildly inventive 1974 song “Sound Chaser” by the progressive art-rock group Yes, which has become a Prutsman specialty.

In the first half the Bach pieces were juxtaposed with Rameau, Beethoven, Wagner (Liszt’s arrangement of the “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde”), Debussy and Schoenberg. But in the second half Mr. Prutsman drew even bolder connections, alternating Bach with music by Charlie Parker (“Ornithology”), the gospel singer and pastor Walter Hawkins, a traditional Rwandan ode and more, all played in his own artful arrangements.

Such a program could have been gimmicky. But the musical connections Mr. Prutsman made were so intriguing, and his playing so earnest and sensitive, that you never doubted the integrity of this musical adventure. In recent seasons in New York, the pianists Pierre-Laurent Aimard and David Greilsammer have also presented programs that leap across historical eras. Mr. Prutsman’s leaps were even wider. Yet his program, grounded in Bach, was in the end a tribute to Bach, who summed up what had happened before and anticipated much of what was to come.

That Mr. Prutsman brought a similar approach to everything he played made the musical connections easier to hear. He played throughout with rhythmic freedom, warm colorings and jazzy spontaneity. I prefer Bach (and Schoenberg, for that matter) with more articulate rhythm and clarity. Still, Mr. Prutsman’s performances were honest and elegant.

He was in his element in Liszt’s arrangement of the “Liebestod,” bringing out the astonishing colors and shimmering textures in the music rather than playing the work as a virtuosic showpiece, which it is not. The highlight for me was Mr. Prutsman’s slightly crazed and brilliant arrangement of the episodic, relentless Yes song.

He did not speak to the audience about the program, which ended with a beautifully subdued performance of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E. Instead he let the music do the talking. The audience listened with notably rapt attention, then gave Mr. Prutsman a standing ovation. There was no encore. To add anything would have thrown off the balance of “Bach and Forth.”

A version of this review appeared in print on December 7, 2010, on page C6 of the New York edition.