For its pair of concerts this weekend, the Vancouver Symphony is sourcing local talent by featuring Dimitri Zhgenti, who will play Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
Zhgenti lives in Vancouver and graduated from Heritage High School before earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano performance at Indiana University, South Bend, where he studied with internationally acclaimed pianist Alexander Toradze.
Just 25 years old, Zhgenti has an unusual background. You might be tempted to think that he is Russian because of his first name, and his last name looks vaguely Italian. But Zhgenti was born in Tbilisi, Georgia. That’s the country sandwiched between Russia and Turkey in the Caucasus Mountains and on the Black Sea. With a history that stretches back into antiquity, Georgia has its own unique alphabet, language, and cultural traditions, including music.
“My mom says that she would sing to me when she would put me to bed,” explained Zhgenti. “She would sing some difficult Georgian melodies, and at 4 months, I could repeat them quite accurately. So, as a child, I liked to sing in the neighborhood. I would fake through the words of an Italian song like ‘O sole mio’ and ‘Santa Lucia.’ My upstairs neighbor was fluent in Italian, so she helped me to learn the words, and I learned Georgian songs, of course. By the time I was 5 or 6 years old, I was performing in small concerts.”
The family household in Tbilisi had a piano that Zhgenti liked to “mess around with,” and he started piano lessons when he was 9, advancing rapidly to study with a professor at the Tbilisi State Conservatory. His family (his parents taught math and physics) moved to the United States in 2002, settling in Vancouver where one of his uncles lived. Now he has 15 relatives in Vancouver.
To prepare for his debut with the Vancouver Symphony, Zhgenti has polished the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 1 under the guidance of two local experts: Joanna Hodges in Vancouver and Mark Westcott in Portland. Prokofiev wrote the concerto while still a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, winning the top prize in the school’s competition in 1914 and the ire of his professors, who voted for him yet complained that the music was too boisterous and not refined enough for their tastes.
“Prokofiev’s ‘First Piano Concerto’ has many technical challenges,” remarked Zhgenti. “It’s a one-movement concerto that has three parts. The first and last sections are related, but the second is the most lyrical with a singing melody that is like a fairy tale. Still, the first and last sections can sound very notey and jumpy, but I will try to bring out more musical aspects.”
The orchestra’s concert program will open with “Prometheus,” a tone poem by Franz Liszt that was premiered in 1850. Its music paints the Greek legend in which the Prometheus gave human beings fire and was punished unmercifully by the gods. That story of a loner who defied authority and liberated humanity through his creative power inspired many Romantic writers and composers.
Liszt certainly felt drawn to the legend of Prometheus, in part, because he was the most famous musician of his era. At the height of his fame as a pianist, when Liszt would drop a glove, a fight to obtain it would ensue among even the highest society ladies. Audiences screamed and fainted at his concerts. If he chose to faint after finishing a piece and had to be helped off the stage, pandemonium would break out. The term “Lisztomania” was coined to describe the hysteria of his fans.
To stoke the fire of his fame, Liszt would retire from concertizing now and then. In 1847, he withdrew to Weimar, Germany, to work on “Prometheus,” packing the score with an emotional roller coaster of sound. In his own program notes, Liszt wrote that he wanted reveal the hero’s soul with music of “Boldness, Suffering, Endurance and Redemption.”
The orchestra will also play Béla Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” which was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation and premiered by the Boston Symphony under Serge Koussevitzky in 1944. Most concertos feature one instrument as the soloist and the orchestra in the backup band, but the “Concerto for Orchestra” treats the entire orchestra as the soloist, demanding virtuosic playing from each section. Over the course of five movements, the piece transitions from a serious and somber demeanor to one that is lighter and life-embracing.
Although very ill with leukemia, Bartók attended the premiere of the “Concerto for Orchestra,” which was a huge success. The concerto turned out to be his last, fully completed work, but it has become the most popular of his orchestral pieces.
Salvador Brotons will lead all of the works on the Vancouver Symphony program. It is interesting to note that he is now in his 25th year as music director while the featured soloist Zhgenti is only 25 years old.