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Zeltser's Powerful Prokofiev

SJ Symphony's guest pianist exhibits mastery of the composer's many intricacies

By Philip Collins

MUSIC DIRECTOR Leonid Grin and the San Jose Symphony gave audiences their money's worth at last Friday's Signature Concert. Not all was roses--there were some regrettable low points--but the concert's centerpiece, Prokofiev's Concerto no. 3 in C Major for Piano and Orchestra, was so remarkable that the indiscretions that marred the surrounding works--Sibelius' Night Ride and Sunrise and Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 1 in G Minor (Winter Dreams)--pale in memory in comparison with the concerto's high yield.

Soviet-born pianist Mark Zeltser nailed the Prokofiev dead center. One would like to imagine that the composer--a virtuoso pianist--played the work with such finesse and passion. By the time in his career that Prokofiev had composed his Piano Concerto no. 3, he'd developed a reputation for brandishing technical skills of diabolic proportions in his keyboard works. He was Russia's very own enfant terrible of the keys.

With the third concerto, Prokofiev--like Bartok in his third--achieved a level of sophistication that harnessed youth's rebellious energies within a context of order and sublime beauties. This work marks a turning point in the composer's career in light of the imaginative reaches to which Prokofiev later took the form, particularly in his Piano Concerto no. 5.

Zeltser made the utmost of Prokofiev's pianistic eccentricities while maintaining a reverence for the score's musical aims. The composer's widely ranging exploration of moods broaches the limits of schizophrenia at times, inhabiting realms of transcendence one moment and hammering pathos the next.

Zeltser zeroed in on the emotional line that ran through the extremities, embracing opposites while at the same time illuminating the links between them.

Zeltser's mastery of such negotiations was evident early in the first movement with his handling of the segue from glittery passagework to fistlike chordal dissonances. Although shocking, the leap seemed almost inevitable; it was clear that Zeltser knew exactly where the piece was going and how fast it should get there.

Grin worked sensitively as a liaison to the orchestra, tracking his soloist's tempo inclinations and giving him plenty of elbow room. Zeltser's phrasing was decisive in every instance, and his tempo inflections were strategically placed. Ritards were sparingly applied and smoothly wrought on the whole.

In the andantino, a finely meted accelerando (spanning nearly 10 seconds) created a transformational event of a kind that is rarely experienced in the concert hall.

The movement's five-variation sequence was delectably differentiated and honed with expert guidance. Zeltser's flying take on the madcap first variation--with principal trumpet James Dooley along for the ride--lifted the movement light years from its prescribed tempo setting, and his facile account of the syncopated threes in the next variation was as riveting as it was fluid.

When the movement finally came around to the recapitulation of the principal theme, it seemed like being plopped back into the middle of Prokofiev's Classical Symphony, the composer's adolescent gem that so naughtily spoofed conventional mannerisms.

The final allegro built with gripping interplays of tension and release. From the bassoon's ambling entrance, nicely phrased by Carla Wilson, the movement's drama developed incrementally. Zeltser fueled the piano's incendiary contributions with strong rhythmic command, and the strings' beautifully voiced section work kept the movement's lyric element alive.

Sibelius' tone poem Night Ride and Sunrise was serviceable but less than poetic. The strings' bounding ostinato began the work crisply enough--first with the cellos, then up through the sections to the violins. Too soon, though, the texture froze into gridlock and became unduly predominant. Melodic relief arrived periodically--compliments of a radiant horn quartet and then principal flutist Maria Tamburino--but the strings' galloping figure was relentless.

Grin made a sensual case for the work midway through, when the ride ceased and the strings took over with a broad minor theme. The section mustered a thriving swell of sound, announcing the coming of dawn with tremendous warmth.

Tchaikovsky's First Symphony is the winning feat of a precocious 28-year-old, marked by genius and some naiveté, with enough of the former to make it a very gratifying listen. Friday's reading conveyed some of the opus' melodic elegance, but the overall impression was rough going. Evidently rehearsal time went elsewhere.

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From the February 27-March 5, 1997 issue of Metro

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