Saturday, February 5, 2011

Review: Richmond Symphony

Victor Yampolsky conducting
Feb. 5, Carpenter Theatre, Richmond CenterStage

When Awadagin Pratt's career took off in the early 1990s, he was the only concert pianist in dreadlocks most classical audiences had ever seen, and one of the few who eschewed formal concert attire and standard pianist's posture.

Those who got past his appearance and listened closely to his playing heard a young proponent of an old tradition: high-romantic pianism, free with rubato and pregnant silences, given to bursts of energy and abrupt shifts in volume, keenly attuned to grand rhetorical gestures.

Performing this weekend with the Richmond Symphony in Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor (the same work he played in his last appearances with the orchestra, in 1996), Pratt is still dreadlocked, still tuxedo-free – no longer novel in this new age of "alt-classical" troupes garbed like garage bands – and still a high-romantic, as a pianist had better be in this of all concertos.

The Brahms D minor is an ideal vehicle for a pianist with big technique, high temperament and the ability to put long-breathed phrases into context in a long, rather sprawling musical essay. Pratt is not as volatile a performer as he was 20 years ago; he's more selective in letting loose, more prone to exploit passages of profound quiet. His technique is still immense, but more musically focused, and the spontaneity he brings to a performance is more calibrated.

In the first of two performances of the Brahms, Pratt and guest conductor Victor Yampolsky spent much of the long first movement getting onto each other's wavelengths. Yampolsky, son of the esteemed Russian pianist Vladimir Yampolsky and a violin student of David Oistrakh, drew a tonally rich, rhetorically lofty sound from the orchestra, but set measured, not very flexible tempos that at times drifted out of sync with the piano. These conflicts were mostly resolved in the subsequent adagio and rondo finale.

Yampolsky’s warm and sonorous but straight-faced approach to romantic music yielded rather mellow accounts of Schumann's First Symphony – a "Spring" that danced, but with blunt accents that rarely sprang – and Weber's "Euryanthe" Overture.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Feb. 6 at the Carpenter Theatre, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $17-$72. Details: (800) 982-2787 (Ticketmaster);