By Lawrence Budmen

A celebration of musical colors was the central focus of the opening night of Festival Miami's nineteenth season on September 21, 2002 at Gusman Hall on the UM campus. An extraordinary 35 year old Italian pianist Pietro De Maria dominated the evening with a vibrant, life affirming performance of Camille Saint-Saens's "Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor," Opus22. Saint-Saens is regarded as a light weight composer. His music has been viewed as elegantly superficial. In fact this impression was due to facile, uncommitted performances. Saint-Saens was a master of musical craftsmanship and a colorful, imaginative orchestrator. . His scores abound with melodic inspiration. Too often his 2nd Piano Concerto has been a vehicle for power pounding keyboard players who emphasize volume above all else. In the hands of a true artist like De Maria the score emerges as a highly varied, inspired musical confection. 

De Maria possesses a rock solid technique. Neither rhythmic complexities nor broad octave leaps hold difficulties for him. His playing is beyond technical perfection. He concentrates on making music. Few pianists have as wide a spectrum of colors as De Maria draws from his instrument. Every turn of phrase is delicately etched in varieties of pastel tones. Octaves cascade from the keyboard like a musical waterfall. He does not lack for thrust or power. Rather he holds it in reserve at the service of the music and the composer.

De Maria is a cultivated, intelligent musician. Every musical statement has a freshness and sense of wonder that comes from a creative artistic imagination. The opening movement (Andante sostenuto) of the Saint-Saens concerto was played with an almost operatic passion. The Allegro scherzando had a lightness and elegance that seemed to dance off the keyboard. The concluding Presto Tarantella was all piano fireworks. This was virtuoso pianism filled with endless gradations of tone, color, and dynamics. In De Maria's awesome performance, the concerto emerged as a true romantic masterpiece. Conductor Thomas Sleeper offered a flexible, sympathetic accompaniment despite some less than precise playing by the University of Miami Symphony Orchestra. 

De Maria was rewarded by the capacity first night audience with a standing, cheering ovation. He offered a Ballade by Chopin, which he dedicated to his wife. This was heaven storming pianistic romanticism - thundering chords and dulcet melodies coupled with a full, shimmering tonal palette. A second encore brought a Gigue by Bach, played with Úlan and an almost choreographic pulse - a wonderful, creamy musical dessert. De Maria is a uniquely original and artistically stimulating artist. Above all he is a great keyboard virtuoso!

Musical coloration also was the order of the evening in the orchestral works on the program. UM Professor of Composition John Van der Slice sought in his "Specters," which received its world premiere on this occasion, to create a musical impression of a star filled midnight sky - the "mystery" of existence. There are some wonderful percussion effects - highly original combinations of modern piano, toy piano, celeste, and cow bells as well as a full percussion battery. The composer might consider re-casting the score as a piece for percussion ensemble. There are moments when combinations of flute and oboe cast a sound image of endless space. At one point the strings threaten to break into a full scale melody of Mahlerian romanticism. Yet for all of Van der Slice's creative ingenuity, the score does not really work. Van der Slice is not Messiaen and it would take a Messiaen or a Dutilleux to create a sound world worthy of the "mystery" that "Specters" attempts. Thomas Sleeper, who is also a composer, conducted a sincere, well rehearsed performance. The composer could not have hoped for a more dedicated advocate. The student musicians played the complex score with splendid assurance.

Sleeper opened the program with a lively performance of Berlioz's "Roman Carnival Overture." He is a conductor of taste and discernment.

This Festival Miami opening was a truly special occasion. With the remarkable pianism of Pietro De Maria, UM delivered an exciting evening of music!  

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