Dimitri Zhgenti made quite a splash when he gave his debut concert with the Vancouver Symphony in 2015. That’s when the Vancouver-based pianist wowed audiences with a scintillating performance of Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto. Now, Zhgenti will be back in the spotlight with the orchestra, this time to play Aram Khachaturian’s dazzling Piano Concerto.
Regarded as the most famous composer of Armenian descent, Khachaturian wrote the concerto for piano and orchestra in 1936 when he was 33 years old. It premiered the following year at an outdoor summer concert in Moscow where the wind blew the eyeglasses off the conductor’s face, forcing him to conduct from memory.
“Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto isn’t played all that often nowadays, but it was initially popularized by Russian pianist Lev Oborin and American pianist William Kapell,” said Zhgenti. “The concerto has a large spectrum of emotion: fiery, virtuosic, and very rhapsodic. It contains an improvisational character, a very hot-blooded and passionate expression that is characteristic of the people of Armenia and Georgia.”
Zhgenti knows what he is talking about. Just like the composer, he was born and raised in Tbilisi, Georgia, which is in the heart of the Caucasus region bordering Europe and Asia.
“The concerto has some Armenian folk influences. The melody in the second movement was taken from a folk tune that Khachaturian heard. It is modified somewhat, but you can hear elements of that tune.”
If You Go
What: VSO plays Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto with Dimitri Zhgenti.
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.
According to Zhgenti, one of the influences in the music comes from the duduk, a double-reed instrument.
“The duduk has a certain sourness,” explained Zhgenti. “And the concerto has a lot of dissonance juxtaposed between major and minor chords — a lot of half-steps — that creates harmonic tension.”
You’ll also hear the unusual sound of a flexatone, which will be played by the percussion section. It has a metal plate that is struck with wooden beaters from two sides.
“You can control the tension of the metal of the flexatone so that the sound goes higher or lower,” noted Zhgenti. “The sound can be eerie. It doubles the strings, and it makes a cool effect.”
Zhgenti, who maintains a piano studio with 40 students, was introduced to Khachaturian’s concerto by his teacher, Mark Westcott.
“The first time I listened to the piece on a recording, it didn’t click with me,” admitted Zhgenti. “Later at a reception — after I had played the Prokofiev concerto — maestro (Salvador) Brotons turned to Mark and me and asked if I had ever considered playing the Khachaturian. So I listened to it again and somehow it clicked with me. I started practicing, and now I’m back with the VSO and the Khachaturian.”
There’s a lot of notes in the Khachaturian concerto, and it would be maddening for most of us to learn them. For Zhgenti, it took a few weeks.
“You have to grasp the patterns and the compositional organization of the piece,” remarked Zhgenti. “After you understand that this is not a collection of random notes, the picture becomes clearer.”
Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3
The orchestra will also perform Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, which is also known as the “Scottish Symphony.” That’s because the music is associated with a trip that the composer took through Scotland in 1829. You can hear Scottish rhythms, such as the reverse dotted pattern called the “Scottish snap” and playful folk melodies that are part of the second movement. You might also become caught up in sounds that seem to suggest dark and stormy clouds that sweep over the highlands.
Even though Mendelssohn began the “Scottish Symphony” during his time in Scotland, he put it aside for a dozen years and didn’t finish it until 1842. It was the last symphony that he would write before his death in 1847 at age 38. It was numbered as his third symphony, because that was the order of publication. Two other symphonies were numbered the fourth and fifth even though they were written earlier.
To open the concert, the orchestra will play Berlioz’s “The Roman Carnival,” a concert overture that uses tunes from his opera, “Benvenuto Cellini,” including one derived from the carnival scene. Berlioz wrote a number of concert overtures, but “The Roman Carnival” has always been the most popular because of the melodies, the lovely solo for English horn and the brilliant orchestration.
All of the works on the program will be conducted by the orchestra’s music director, Salvador Brotons. Even though audiences may be unfamiliar with the Khachaturian concerto, some may recall the orchestra’s powerful account of his Second Symphony, which closed out the season last May. Brotons continues to expand the ensemble’s repertoire with outstanding works that are not often heard elsewhere.