Ravinia – Behzod Abduraimov, Piano
There is no doubt that autumn is creeping its sure and steady way into our senses and lifestyles. Many university students are already back at the books, and younger persons are shopping for school clothes, as the leaves start to rust and the rains grow more insistent. Thoughts of summer vacations, and the cultural enrichment that they often provide, start to slip from the public consciousness as responsibilities that were suspended for a time stomp front-and-center like a marching band.
But residents of the greater-Chicago area would be well-advised to save the dates of the upcoming concerts that finish up what was indeed a glorious season at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park. Those lawn seats are still to be had, and with less worry about sunscreen and mosquito bites, and cooler wind whispering under the stars, there is opportunity yet to let the music masters that still swarm to these environs sooth us into fall. The world’s beloved composers didn’t become the rock stars of their time only for their brilliant, mathematical musical skills; They poured their hearts and souls, their loves and losses, and the trajectory of their personal journeys into every measure and phrase, and these truths are there for us when we metaphorically hold the hands of these greats, and claim our mutual humanity.
At the pianistically tender age of 18, Behzod Abduraimov won the London International Piano Competition, propelling the new Uzbekistan artist-celeb into an international career that stretches from Carnegie Hall and beyond. Abduraimov’s meticulous, machismo soundings caused the New York Times to categorize one of his performances as, “a finger-twisting, knuckle-shredding performance of bravura pieces,” and his program for a gentle fall evening at Ravinia encompassed barn-burning that could threaten any early frost. Beginning with Busoni’s arrangement of the great organ fury, Tocccata and Fuge in D minor, pausing for a moment of Schubert, then pouncing into both Beethoven’s “Appassionata” and the Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 6, Abduraimov kept his audience in rapt attention, riding on a keyboard rollercoaster ride
Opening with the famous piece that has underscored many a horrific film moment, Abduraimov hunched over the keys, thrusting all of the weight of his shoulders through fingers that pulsated like piano hammers. He seldom hesitated over a phrase outside the insistencies his own, often breakneck internal metronome, but the piece’s various sections, broken by such sudden moments of silence that they seem as full of breath as the playing itself, gave the audience the opportunity to take a gulp of air, waiting for the next familiar moment. And if he pumped the pedal often enough to cause a university professor to caution a student, what of that? Now in his middle twenties, this young man’s star is sufficiently established to allow him his artistic freedoms.
I readily presage my comments with the admission that I have never seen this artist in person before, nor have I studied videos of his work. My opinions are derived from a single event, and I happily grant this artist the opportunity to broaden my understanding in the future. Abduraimov’s stage persona is not one of openness and sharing. Rather, he keeps the audience at bay, ready to command and amaze them. I never saw one smile cross this face, although publicity photos insist that the expression is more than possible. While he used this aura, whether natural or studied, to great advantage during most of his program, Schubert’s Moments musicaux Nos. 2 and 3 suffered the most for his grandiose stylings. A more intimate moment was imperative for a program so full of muscle, and this musical meandering was ideal. I felt adrift as I waited for Schubert’s imperative arpeggios to boost me out of the doldrums in which our times can append us, but although the playing was so near note perfect as to belong in a performance museum, the highly controlled Abduraimov kept his body bent over the keys, seemingly seeking perfection rather than soulful understanding.
Finishing the first half with one of Beethoven’s beloved, seminal works, the concert pianist put himself at the risk of conjecture, as a savvy audience might notice any gaffe, but if there was a note awry, it slipped by this ear. With wrists and fingers now fully warm and ready to fire at a blink, Abduraimov flashed through the piece with all the passion that the subtitle requests. While this appetite was of a different color than might be expected, where the audience is allowed to see that the internal artist deeply relates to the idea that a love could be so ravenous as to consume even its creator, he continued to keep us at arm’s length, insisting on his right to passion, and his ability to fulfill it for himself and his audience such that he saw fit. Within this came a sort of calm reassurance that I have never experienced when hearing this piece, and while I was amazed by this man’s clarion fingers, and although I missed a conjured vision of a composer’s hair flinging desperately over the keys, I was left with a new understanding of the sonata’s potential.
A quick step outside Ravinia’s intimate Martin Theatre into the quickening wind preceeding a lightning storm that Abduraimov could have enthused and left in the wake of his virtuosity, a quiet moment at the comforting fountain at the entrance, and then it was back into the theatre to hear Abduraimov tear up a Prokofiev gem that would leave other first-class pianists wilted. Even those who have the ability to perform this piece in sections at a time, might never have the strength and sustained flexibility to send it off from beginning to end. Continuing his pianistic doggedness during the first movement while using those muscular digits to create tunes out of glorious contemporary cacophony, he shouted throughout, proclaiming the theme that would later be fully unfurled. And when Abduraimov did let this fly, the Steinway, the walls of the Martin, the audience itself seemed to vibrate in concert as his fingers became indistinguishable from the keys, as if he could play them all at once and re-sound them before they could return to their resting position. Sweat poured from this miraculous artist until I wondered if the keys would become so wet that he might slip, and I found myself looking to check the brakes that secured the piano, wondering if the fearless instrument could run away with him like a breaking thoroughbred. This was a mind-blowing moment in my musical vocabulary, and I want to bring it into my consciousness again and again, to allow it in to remind me of the bedrock that supports our collective civilization, should we choose to reach for the summit.
But it was in the third movement that I was most emotionally moved. It pleased me that Abduraimov seemed to slip from behind his façade for just a moment to enjoy the jocular second movement with us, for one of the joys of Prokofiev is the humor with which he laced his profundities. But it was in the compositionally unexpected waltz movement that he lifted out of his hips for the very first time in the program, raising his torso from a crouch, and his elbows started to dance, floating into the air as he caressed the keys as he might the face of a beloved. In this moment, I saw a further potential for this artist that is already a force on the classical music scene. For it is the truly great who come to the audience, open-handed in humility; These are the lasting legends, who can both strike our hearts, and hold our hands.
The audience wouldn’t let him go without an encore, and Abduraimov complied with a flashing, flawless rendition of Liszt’s La Campanella. It was great fun to watch his right hand tickle the top of the keyboard, after an evening steeped in a declamatory bravura that demanded much of the left hand, pouncing, and then running, drumming, even suffering calculated banging to bring the audience to their worshipful feet. How I ached for that left hand. What a delight to watch the right hand given full sway.
On Wednesday, August 23, Behzod Abduraimov will no doubt conquer the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2, soloing at Ravinia with the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra under the baton of James Gaffigan. Those who miss the opportunity to experience a summer’s last flourishes have only themselves to take to task.
Reviewed by Aaron Hunt
Presented on August 21 at the Ravinia Festival, 418 Sheridan Road, Highland Park
More information about the Ravinia Festival s available at (847) 266-5000, or www.ravinia.org.
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