Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Obecní dům
February 3

A prodigious talent with a workmanlike approach.

There are rock ’n’ roll and jazz players who are less flamboyant than Fazil Say, the Turkish-born pianist and composer who has cut a prolific swath through the classical music world over the past 16 years. His dramatic hand and arm flourishes, proclivity for reaching inside the piano frame, and habit of seemingly conducting himself with one hand while playing with the other were all on display Thursday night in his appearance with the Prague Symphony Orchestra. The only thing missing was flaming lighters held aloft during the standing ovation he received after steamrolling his way through Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B minor.

Say, 40, is an accomplished concert pianist who has appeared on stages from New York to Tokyo, and at some of the most prestigious festivals in Europe. He’s also a versatile composer who can churn out everything from ballet and film scores to pieces like Paganini Jazz, a contemporary riff on the violinist’s 24th Capriccio. But when Say walks onstage, he looks more like an auto mechanic, hair pulled straight back and sleeves pushed up like a man ready to go to work.

From the very first bars of the concerto, Say was off and running with his own distinct rhythm and phrasing, setting a pace that at times made it seem like the orchestra was racing to catch up. Say hammers on the keys, particularly on the downbeats – his own set of downbeats – and literally explodes into the runs. The technique is dazzling, though he missed some notes in the first movement, as if his hands couldn’t quite keep up with the lightning speed of his brain.

So it was surprising to hear the control he showed during the softer passages of the second and third movements, where in a heartbeat he was able to back off, tone down and play with great sensitivity. By the third movement he was in full synch, with no sacrifice of accuracy for his blazing dexterity. And certainly the audience didn’t mind a few missed notes, responding instead to the fire and intensity of his performance with an extended ovation.

For an encore, Say played one of his own pieces, “Black Earth,” an intriguing, Middle Eastern-tinged work that requires him to reach into the piano and manipulate the strings with his left hand while playing the keyboard with his right. He showed more subtlety, variation and invention during those few minutes than during the entire concerto – not surprising, perhaps, when a musician is playing one of his own pieces rather than trying to freshen a well-worn classic. Though brief, “Black Earth” opened up entirely new dimensions, suggesting much more to Say than an iconoclastic concert pianist.

A fireball at the podium.
Conductor Petr Altrichter had to wipe his face with a handkerchief after the first Tchaikovsky movement, but he doesn’t need Fazil Say to work up a sweat. A former chief conductor with the Prague Symphony Orchestra, Altrichter is highly energized at the podium, sometimes reaching to his knees to pull the sound he wants out of the orchestra. He showed a great feel for the opening piece, Dvořák’s Suite in A major, balancing the dynamics nicely and capturing its lyrical enthusiasm and joyful spirit.

The closing selection, Borodin’s Symphony No. 2, starts with an ominous blast anchored by deep bass and cello undercurrents that Altrichter kept running throughout the piece like dark waves, layering the string melodies and horn, wind and harp accents on top in contrasting colors. For this reviewer, Borodin’s chamber works are more interesting than his symphonic pieces, which are comparatively straightforward in their structure and orchestration. The third movement of this symphony even veers toward schmaltz, but Altrichter kept it on-point, maintaining the urgency and power that propel the piece.

And if there was any doubt about Fazil Say’s rock star status, all one had to do was stand in the lobby at intermission and see the crowd that gathered as he posed for photos and signed autographs. The Prague Symphony Orchestra has been bringing soloists out for these meet-and-greet sessions lately, and it’s a nice touch, giving fans a chance to see their heroes up close after watching them perform, and take home an autographed CD. Next thing you know, they’ll be bringing lighters.

For more on Fazil Say: http://www.fazilsay.com/

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