By Lawrence Budmen

For two decades Festival Miami, presented by the University Of Miami School Of Music, has been a lively, adventurous opening to South Florida’s concert season. On September 20, 2003 at the UM Gusman Concert Hall, Festival Miami 2003 opened its 20th anniversary celebration with a program of Russian showpieces and an Italian rarity.

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No.3” is one of the most formidable works in the pianistic repertoire. This grandly romantic score demands a soloist who can combine virtuosity, musicianship, passionate commitment, and technical perfection in equal measure. Vladimir Horowitz and Van Cliburn were closely associated with this music. In recent seasons Bruno Leonardo Gelber, Horacio Gutierrez, Alexander Toradze, and Yefim Bronfman have given memorable performances of this concerto in Miami. The Festival Miami concert introduced UM’s new piano faculty member Tian Ying in this Rachmaninoff masterwork. 

Ying is a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music. He won high honors at the Van Cliburn International Competition and has concretized widely in North America, Europe, and Asia. Ying’s performance demonstrated that he has pianistic power to spare but he failed to articulate the music’s full dynamic spectrum and melodic richness. Too often his approach was percussive. For all his keyboard power, Ying’s tone was harsh and often unattractive. He rarely played below forte – softness and beauty were lacking. In the second movement Intermezzo: Adagio, he failed to capture the rhapsodic sweep of the music. The rich kaleidoscope of tonal coloration that this gorgeous music evokes was missing. This gorgeous music was sometimes unrecognizable in Ying’s uncertain performance. In the concluding Finale (Alla breve) Ying missed some notes and modified some sections of the score. Throughout the performance the music lacked a sense of natural ebb and flow. Ying’s phrasing was often choppy. Musical paragraphs did not flow together with that feeling of inevitability that marks a truly inspired performance. Too often lyricism and passion were absent from this performance. 

The hero of the evening was conductor Thomas Sleeper. Despite the eccentricities of Ying’s phrasing, Sleeper was with him at every turn. He drew a big, rich sound from the University of Miami Symphony Orchestra. Indeed Sleeper showed real affinity for Rachmaninoff’s romantic nostalgia and the sweeping flourishes of the Russian musical idiom. With only two weeks of rehearsal the student orchestra made a stalwart effort in Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures At An Exhibition.” Ravel’s transcription demands a virtuoso orchestra yet the university ensemble was often impressive. There were mishaps in the winds and brass, but Sleeper and his musicians brought off most of the score’s big moments. “Tuileries” had snap and character. Sleeper evoked the mystery and terror of the “Catacombs” and the horn section responded with strong, rounded tone. The conductor’s break neck tempo and strong accents in “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” were exciting. The concluding “Great Gate of Kiev” had cinematic sweep and impact. Sleeper’s spacious tempo and orchestral control produced a dynamic climax with gongs ringing and bells pealing. 

The concert opened with an interesting novelty – “Primavera Lombarda” (“Springtime in Lombardy”) by the Italian composer Alba Rosa Vietor (1889-1979). The work was commissioned for an American Music Festival in Washington, D.C. in 1949 and was given its premiere performance by the pioneering American conductor Richard Bales. The score is an engaging combination of Debussy inspired French impressionism, Italian dance rhythms, and full blown Richard Strauss orchestral romanticism. There is delicate and beautiful writing for flute and strings. The big orchestral climaxes have impact and sweep. The music is immediately appealing and makes an attractive concert opener. Sleeper and the UM orchestra played Vietor’s score with enthusiasm and flair.

Once again Festival Miami offered an interesting program of romantic music. One performance does not take the full measure of an artist. The Rachmaninoff concerto may not have been the best choice to introduce Tian Ying. His performance of this sweeping masterwork was often painful. His future solo and chamber music performances will give a fuller picture of his artistry. 

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