Vancouver Symphony to perform Prokofiev concerto with eminent pianist

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If You Go

• What: Pianist Alexander Toradze plays Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto. • When: 3 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday. • Where: Skyview High School Concert Hall, 1300 N.W. 139th St., Vancouver. • Cost: $50 for reserved seats, $38 for general admission, $34 for seniors and $10 for students.

After opening its season with a dazzling concert by virtuoso violinist Anne Akiko Myers, the Vancouver Symphony will up the ante this weekend with concerts featuring internationally acclaimed pianist Alexander Toradze.

Toradze is a pianist in the grand Romantic tradition who won the Silver Medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1977. He has soloed with top-tier orchestras in North America, Europe and Russia and made many CDs on the Phillips and Angel/EMI labels. A native of Tbilisi, Georgia (formerly of the USSR), Toradze recently retired from the faculty of the Indiana University South Bend where he was the Martin Endowed Chair Professor of Piano.

For his concert with the VSO, Toradze will perform Sergei Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, one of the most popular concertos of the 20th century.

I spoke with Toradze recently while he was on tour in Italy.

“The whole piece is very cosmopolitan, very segmented,” Toradze said of the Prokofiev concerto. “The first movement has an opening theme that uses only the white keys. This theme is from a white-key string quartet that he was writing but lost when he visited Japan in 1918. The second movement has theme and variations from a folk tune based on a Jewish folk dance and was noted by Prokofiev in 1913. The theme from the third movement has elements of a Japanese folk tune. Prokofiev loved to listen to folk music when he traveled. He grabbed an element of a Japanese folk tune.”

Toradze knows this piece like the back of his hand, and his recording of it with Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra was named by “International Piano Quarterly” as “historically best on record.

“Altogether the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto is very Russian, perhaps because it is so cosmopolitan,” remarked Toradze. “One of the variations in the second movement has a fairy tale element that hints at an ice castle that is part of the Russian folk idiom. There are indications for the piano sound to be ‘freddo,’ which is Italian for cold. It’s the only indication of temperature in music. You can imagine a sound like dripping icicles. The concerto has all of the piano sophistication that one can wish for.”

At his home in South Bend, Toradze maintains a piano studio and enjoys playing his 1984 Steinway D concert grand.

“The piano was originally one of three made for Vladimir Horowitz, who was going to take them with him when he went on tour to Russia, but this one never went on the tour. It went to the Ravinia Festival and then it was lent to me and afterwards it became mine.”

Pianist and VSO board member Dimitri Zhgenti studied under Toradze for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“Toradze is a passionate teacher,” said Zhgenti. “When you go to his lessons you are scared and excited at the same time. But the more you prepare, the more you get back. He is like a father figure for the students in his studio. He would travel with his students on European tours. They would do marathon recitals of all of Prokofiev’s music, or a Shostakovich marathon or a Rachmaninov marathon. That can be very intense and demanding. I will bring my whole piano studio to see him with the Vancouver Symphony. Even the parents will be coming to hear him.”

The Prokofiev concerto is just one part of the orchestra’s all-Russian program. Music director Salvador Brotons and forces will perform the Suite from Stravinsky’s ballet “The Firebird” in its 1919 version. The Suite succinctly captures the main themes of the ballet, which is based on a Russian folk tale. It’s a boy-gets-the-girl story that involves a prince, an exotic bird, a garden, beautiful princesses, a magical egg and an evil king. The gorgeous and evocative music is considered one of Stravinsky’s masterpieces.

The orchestra will also perform the Divertimento from Stravinsky’s “The Fairy’s Kiss.” This piece juxtaposes uniquely odd passages with lush lyrical sections that sound very much like Tchaikovsky. Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Maiden,” the story begins with a child who is kissed by a fairy. After the child grows up to be a successful young man, he receives a second kiss from the fairy and that dooms him to an eternity with her.

The concert will begin with the “Dance of the Persian Slaves” from Modest Mussorgsky’s opera “Khovantschina.” While the opera is rarely performed today, this short piece, depicting a group of Persian slave girls dancing for a bored prince, has remained a favorite in many concert halls.