Friday, November 26, 2010


November 25

Tchaikovsky fell flat, but Kitajenko's Prokofiev was superb.

There are innumerable stories in the classical music world of stars who were born as last-minute substitutes: The scheduled performer falls ill, an understudy is thrust into the spotlight, and proves to be a major new talent. Unfortunately, that was not the case with young Japanese violinist Kei Shirai last night. But he deserves an A for effort.

The occasion was a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto for violin and orchestra in D major (Op. 35), and the scheduled soloist was Slovak violinist Juraj Čižmarovič. But when he started to rehearse with the Czech Philharmonic earlier this week, he clearly wasn’t prepared – at least, that’s how the orchestra members felt. So they told him thanks, but no thanks, and called Shirai, a 27 year-old Japanese native who is studying in Vienna. Shirai had made a big impression playing Brahms in a recent concertmaster competition with the orchestra, and readily agreed to step in.

He took a train from Vienna to Prague on Wednesday, and stayed up all night practicing. The orchestra players were amazed to find him still on his feet when they assembled for a public rehearsal on Thursday morning.

A player with pluck.
But Shirai’s hard work did not translate into a brilliant performance; in fact, quite the contrary. His pitch was off, his bowing was flawed and he made some obvious mistakes. Conductor Dmitrij Kitajenko tried to help him by keeping the orchestra muted and the tempo running at a metronome pace, but that just served to highlight the problems. A Japanese violin player in the audience was so stricken by Shirai’s performance that she apologized to the people around her, assuring them that Japanese players are usually better.

The musicians were supportive, with many of the string players tapping their bows as Shirai left the stage and praising his pluck after the concert. In retrospect, it might have been better to change the program and let him play Brahms, as he suggested. But if baptism by fire counts for anything, Shirai will be back, and given a proper chance to show what he can do.

Kitajenko had a chance to display his world-famous conducting skills after intermission, leading a vibrant rendition of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5. Freed from the constraints of the first half, both conductor and orchestra let loose with a rich, full sound, plumbing the depths of the layers of strings, horns and percussion, and taking full advantage of the symphony’s roiling dynamics.

Composed in 1944, the piece melds traditional and avant-garde elements that Kitajenko balanced nicely – the undercurrent of horns going one way, sweeping string melodies another, and the woodwinds and percussion adding accents and colors. With constantly changing tempos and the interplay of so many different elements, the playing needs to be both agile and controlled, and Kitajenko was masterful in that respect, taking the sound from diffuse strings to a powerful blast from the full orchestra without missing a note of articulation.

His tempo was brisk, perhaps a bit too fast in some passages. But Kitajenko’s exploration of the many shadings and gradations in the piece was brilliant, the work of an expert in the Russian repertoire.

The conductor looked pleased with the results, applauding the orchestra himself during the curtain calls. And the players took the evening in stride. Shirai’s debut wasn’t quite what they had hoped for, but as one musician opined afterward, “He was still better than the Slovak.”

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