Sergei Saratovsky rehearsing before his virtuoso performance

Sergei Saratovsky rehearsing before his virtuoso performance

Pianist heralds spring on St. Patrick’s Day

Russian pianist Sergei Saratovsky brings a spectacular performance in the St. Patrick's Day concert sponsored by the NOCCA

When the North Okanagan Community Concert Association chose St. Patrick’s Day and virtuoso concert pianist Sergei Saratovsky to herald spring 2013 at the Performing Arts Centre, the sun shone as brilliantly as did the performer who replaced Ruston Vuori due to his hand injury.

One of the habits that reviewers are heir to is to familiarize themselves with concert content in advance. Saratovsky’s selection for last Sunday afternoon was no exception. (This practice, with its capacity to enhance the appreciation of a performance exponentially, could serve all concert-goers well.)

So, with the scheduled opening piece, Mozart’s Sonata in B flat major K333, dancing in my head, I arrived at the PAC stage door early to photograph Saratovsky rehearsing.  Sublime wonder stopped me in my tracks when I heard the strains I’d been humming echo from the piano as Saratovsky perfected phrases that didn’t quite meet his criteria. When he’d finished I asked if I might photograph him. “As long as I can still practise,” he said in his disarming Russian accent, “you can do your job while I do mine.”  And he continued to illustrate the point that genius is earned rather than born.

After he’d refreshed his memory with the score of Mozart’s sonata, he stuffed it into the backpack that rested on the leg of the Steinway grand, and moved on to Schumann’s Carnaval Opus 9, timing each of its 20 numbered studies, along with the two un-numbered, Sphinxes and Intermezzo, which many pianists omit.

Of course I had listened to Carnaval in advance too.  I had also watched on YouTube the delightful one-act ballet of the same name, based on Schumann’s music, choreographed by Mikhail Fokine with his own libretto in 1910.  Thus armed to visualize each Commedia dell’Arte character Schumann depicted, I could appreciate Saratovsky’s sensitive interpretation, reflecting both the dark and light aspects of the composer’s personality.

And this was just the rehearsal!

Saratovsky’s energy, focus and musicianship bled into a spectacular tour de force in performance.

As he introduced Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat major Opus 53, he made the observation, and abided by it, that the pianist’s job is to use his instrument as an expressive voice rather than a percussive instrument. His contrasts in colour, intensity and pace, particularly his use of the pause (caesura in musical parlance), aptly illustrated that concept.

Yet his stage presence, perhaps inhibited by slow sound and lighting cues, might have benefited had his hands, so expressive at the keyboard, been tucked out of sight when he stood to introduce the pieces. Alternatively, he could have sat at the piano to speak. (Speaking of pianos, NOCCA’s did not hold up well under pressure unfortunately.)

Of the three Tchaikovsky Seasons chosen by Saratovsky, Troika (“horse drawn sleigh or carriage” in Russian) was favoured.

The exhilarating program ended with Rachmaninoff’s Liebeslied (Love’s Sorrow), followed by Liebesfreud (Love’s Joy), via which Saratovsky unveiled a glimpse of his personal life: his recent marriage to a lady from his native Karelia and the 15-month delay, due to immigration procedures,  they will have to endure before she can join him in Canada.

NOCCA’s final concert this season, on April 23 at 7:30 p.m., features clarinet virtuoso Francois Houle with Jane Hayes at piano. Google “Community Concerts Vernon” or check for advance program details. I recommend listening ahead of time!