A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto — a staple of the concert hall since its 1901 premiere — has been performed by so many masters that it can be hard to hear new interpretations with an open mind. On Dec. 20, pianist Kirill Gerstein and the LA Phil, conducted by guest conductor Cristian Macelaru, delivered a discerning performance that piqued the imagination and offered a fresh perspective of this beloved work.

Gerstein’s playing was not only brilliant, but also grand and beautiful. Never letting sentimentality get in the way of the bigger drama, Gerstein played the concerto’s indulgent melodies with warmth and radiance, holding them in tension with its darker and more impulsive moments, which he delivered with power and flawless virtuosity.

The romantic piano concerto often involves intimate but tense dialogue between the piano and the orchestra, as they bicker like star-crossed lovers. Gerstein, being also a proficient jazz pianist, brought this partnership to the highest level on Sunday. His playing was powerful, but never overwhelming, and he listened and responded to Macelaru and the orchestra with intelligence and sensitivity, particularly in the flirtatious, fleeting exchanges of the second movement.

Besides Gerstein, the highlight of this concert was LA Phil Principal Clarinetist Michele Zukovsky, who played her last concert before retiring after 54 years. She was one of the longest-serving musicians with the orchestra. Zukovsky’s signature sound — effortless and beautiful — was showcased in the remaining two Rachmaninoff orchestral pieces, the Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, and the Vocalise, Op. 34 No. 14.

The Symphonic Dances, which comprised the second half of the program, was energetic and relentless, and Macelaru elicited a big and powerful sound from the orchestra, which somehow seemed to be able to draw back for more at the piece’s climactic sections. The final movement, with its frightening, discombobulated Dies Irae chant, kept the audience on the edge of its seats to its violent conclusion.

The Vocalise, which started the program, was a fitting end to Zukovsky’s tenure with the orchestra. Its wistful, throbbing melody, carried throughout by the strings, was passed on for a final reminiscence by the clarinet at its conclusion; and as the pulse slowed and sound from the rest of orchestra dimmed, Zukovsky’s tender and hauntingly beautiful sound rose up to fill Disney Hall for one last time.

—Hao Yuan Kueh, Culture Spot LA

For information about upcoming concerts, visit www.laphil.com.