The life of a soloist is fraught with peril. With the thousands of details that make up any major work scurrying around in memory, fingers and emotions it is essential to have a sympathetic and supportive accompanist (be they pianists or conductors) to improve the chances for a successful performance by being rhythmically rock solid and interpretatively like-minded. With one notable exception when my public-radio supplied collaborator turned two pages by mistake—and failed to realize it—during a doomed taping of the Brahms Clarinet Sonata in F Minor, I never played in public again without the superior and ever-dependable Evelyn Greenberg. Having a musician of her calibre sharing the stage enabled me to concentrate totally on the repertoire at hand.
Elizabeth Pitcairn was not offered that kind of musical partnership as she fearlessly navigated through Tchaikovsky’s D Major Concerto as the featured guest of the Indian Wells Desert Symphony. That she was able to maintain her composure and deliver a technically first-rate performance with missed cues, dragging tempi and truncated phrase endings abounding on the stage behind her speaks well for her future career.
Pitcairn’s tone, so full without being forced and her more than ample bow technique (featuring a spiccato that ranks with the best) allow her to use the notes as tools to the inner music rather than ends in themselves. This approach of art before flash is as welcome as it is rare in concert life currently. My only reservation, given the circumstances, came during the first movement cadenza when the top harmonics were just a tad under and more breath between statements would have been solidified their meaning.
And the unnecessary remarks “Isn’t she gorgeous?&lrquo; made by music director and congenial host Edwin Benachowski seemed as out of place as some of the orchestral entries that followed. Would he have introduced, say, American virtuoso Joshua Bell, the same way?
The first half of the evening was a collection of best-loved Russian repertoire that showed off both the orchestra and the McCallum Theater to great advantage. Acoustically, the room is quite live, allowing all voices to be heard. All, that is, except the second violins whose sounds are projected into the band rather than to the listener due to Benachowski’s seldom-used string seating plan, which served no apparent purpose. When I slipped up to the balcony for the concerto, I did find the string tone was much more homogeneous, but was continuously distracted by an electronic beep that sounded unfailingly every three seconds; the sort of sound one hears at home when the smoke detector batteries are getting low.
Musical highlights of the opening were Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, which started tediously but soon flew into action (ably assisted by concertmaster Vladimir Polimatini’s body language) and Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla Overture, where the brass and percussion kept things moving at a brisk pace.
The slower, more lyrical works were less successful given Benachowski’s inability to turn the many full legato lines into meaningful musical shapes: too much stab and parry when much more contour and dynamic colourings are lurking just beneath the surface in the Khachaturian and Glière scores.
Nonetheless, the players did everything possible to keep the near-capacity crowd enriched and entertained. And the remarkably well-centred yet flexible tone of principal clarinetist Kathryn Nevin coupled with her unfailing musicianship (particularly in her interplay with Pitcairn) was the orchestral treat of the night. JWR