Thursday, April 25, 2013

Robin Sutherland at the SF Conservatory

The tall, gangly, pony-tailed pianist Robin Sutherland above has been a fixture at San Francisco Symphony concerts for the last forty years as their Principal Chair in Keyboards, a position created for him in 1973 by music director Seiji Ozawa. The appointment was unusual in that he was still a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which he had entered the year before after stints at Colorado colleges and The Juilliard School. The program for last night's Alumni Recital at the Conservatory featuring Sutherland explains:
"In November 1972, the San Francisco Symphony was rehearsing Hindemith's Kammermusik No. 1 when the piano soloist, faculty member Mack McCray, fell ill. In a panic, the Symphony contacted Milton Salkind, then president of the Conservatory to see about a possible replacement. Quite by coincidence, he dispatched Sutherland. Evidently things went well..."

At last night's concert, Sutherland was joined onstage by new and old musical colleagues and teachers, not to mention a sold-out house filled with friends and admirers. This included at least a dozen San Francisco Symphony ushers such as the pair above, who I was seeing in civilian clothes for the first time.

The first piece on the program was a fabulous stunt, Rachmaninoff's Suite #2 for Two Pianos, where a different pianist joined Sutherland for each of the four movements. I had never heard the music before, and was thrilled by the composer at his wildest and loudest, at times sounding like a full orchestra. "Truly a joyful noise," Sutherland quoted Michael Tilson Thomas about the music. The pianists were all Conservatory alumni, from left to right Nicholas Pavkovic (2011), Christopher Basso (2004), Keisuke Nakagoshi (2006), Scott Foglesong (1979), and Robin Sutherland (1975).

Though comparisons are odious, there was an unavoidable element of Battle of the Bands in this performance, and Keisuke Nakagoshi above right won hands-down. Possibly because he is already part of the ZOFO four-hand piano duo, his playing fitted sensitively and seamlessly with Sutherland, and it was often impossible to tell where one pianist started and the other left off. Keisuke's musicality and the crystalline clarity of his touch in the second Waltz movement were exquisite and inspired Sutherland to some of his most beautiful playing of the evening.

This was followed by the West Coast premiere of Volante by Nicholas Pavkovic, who was performing double-duty as pianist and composer during the first half. It's a three-movement duet for piano and clarinet commissioned by Sutherland, and played with Carlos Julian Ortega above. According to Pavkovic's program notes, he was attempting to integrate Brahms, Poulenc and modal jazz. It didn't work for me at all, sounding conservative and dull, which was a surprise since Pavkovic's music is usually so lively.

After intermission, Sutherland introduced the Faure Piano Quartet #1 by telling the audience that it was scheduled to be played by pianist Mehahem Pressler last year with faculty members (left to right) Ian Swensen on violin, Paul Hersh on viola, and Jennifer Culp on cello. "They didn't play it for whatever reason then, so we're going to do it now with the same scheduled performers as it's one of the most beautiful pieces in the chamber music literature." Unlike Pressler, who performed with the Beaux Arts Trio for over 50 years, Sutherland has been playing his piano over a full orchestra for the last four decades, so it was a very different kind of performance, long on passion but short on subtlety. Ian Swenson, as usual, was awesome.

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