David N. Dunkle, For The Sentinel
Frederic Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor is hauntingly beautiful music that simply washes over you, evoking memories of warm summer nights when the possibilities of life seem truly limitless.
And when played by an artist with the impeccable skill of renowned pianist Ann Schein, this work is truly a treat to be savored.
Schein, one of the world's best known interpreters of Chopin, joined Maestro Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra on Saturday night at The Forum to produce a truly scintillating rendition of the 19th century Polish composer's enduring work.
Schein's performance, which drew a resounding ovation, is the centerpiece of HSO's fifth Masterworks program of the 2013-14 season.
The program, which will be repeated at 3 p.m. today, also features a burbling symphonic dance by contemporary French composer Guillaume Connesson and Russian-born Sergei Rachmaninoff's lushly Romantic Third Symphony.
Connesson's "Aleph," a compact work from 2007 that is part of his "Cosmic Trilogy," is a lively modern jaunt that starts strong and drives to the finish line, with an especially gratifying contribution from the horn section and a twirling string line that has an almost vertiginous effect.
The piece got the audience energized, and that's when the Steinway was rolled out to the front of the stage and Schein took her place on the bench.
Chopin, a pianist of great skill who composed nearly all of his works with that instrument in a starring role, although he also wrote a spiffy cello concerto. His Second Piano Concerto premiered in Warsaw in 1830, when Chopin was just 20 years old.
Yet it is a work of great maturity, with a rapturous second movement that lingers in the mind and a stirring finale which requires virtuosic skill to perform. Fortunately the 74-year-old Schein, who has performed with most of the world's great orchestras, has all the necessary gifts.
The only criticism of the piece — and it's an unjust complaint — is that the orchestra is sometimes reduced to a mere accompanist for the mesmerizing piano work.
Malina made no such complaints, and truth is the orchestral contribution to the concerto is significant. The conductor and his HSO musicians seemed more than happy to provide a sturdy framework which allowed their highly regarded guest artist to, well, shine as she worked her way confidently through the three movements.
The concerto is undeniably a piano-centric work, one that Schein has performed many times, dating back to her days as a young prodigy when she counted the legendary Arthur Rubinstein among her teachers.
Today, a mature Schein has a more temperate technique when compared to the pyrotechnics of her early days, but that's a good thing. She makes none of those "see what I can do" flourishes that young artists sometimes offer, allowing the purity of Chopin's vision to provide the personality.
Not that her technical skill has lagged. Her dazzling work on both the delicately lovely second movement and the wickedly challenging final movement more than demonstrated that.
Rachmaninoff had a tough assignment after intermission, recapturing the attention of a Forum audience that may have been still starry-eyed from Schein's performance.
Fortunately, his Symphony No. 3 in A minor, produced on the eve of the Second World War, remains a pertinent and enjoyable work more than 75 years after its creation.
Rachmaninoff, like Chopin (and Schein) a pianist of great renown — and who once performed in Harrisburg — was also an unquestioned master of orchestral music. In the soaring Third, he meshed strings, woodwinds, horns and percussion into one voice, trading themes and melodies among them with fluent ease.
Here, the skill of HSO under the leadership of the talented Malina is in full view, casting a spell with the fluidity of their play. Malina is in his element with this work, and he proceeds with a light touch that brings the subtle beauty of Rachmaninoff's work to full fruition.
On a lovely spring evening, which raised hopes that a long, harsh winter is at last drawing to an end, HSO's dynamic Masterworks program is perfectly in tune with the optimism that a new and gentler season engenders.