It’s a cliché that music goes straight to the heart and can unite people across difference. But the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.1, played by a young Texan, Van Cliburn, pierced right through an Iron Curtain when he won the first Tchaikovsky competition in Russia during the height of the Cold War.
While Cliburn was 6 feet four with hands that could span 12 notes, by contrast, Thomas Yee is small in stature. However, from the opening fortissimo chords, he proved that he is a giant in musical stature; his hands were both powerful and delicate. He had no problem pounding out the big chords, nor running the rapids of cascading notes and swirling eddies from top to bottom of the keyboard. The Kahilu’s grand piano is grand indeed, and Dr. Yee pulled out fully rounded tones in the held notes, and the fast notes came tumbling out like sparkling jewels. The simple folk melodies were played with deep emotional expression, but the composition that incorporates the melodies is not simple. The melodic lines are ornamented with intricate and rapid accompaniments throughout the piece, requiring the pianist to be a technical virtuoso and folk singer at the same time – both sides of the contradiction held firmly by Dr. Yee.
At the end of the first movement, while audiences usually hold their applause until the end of a piece, the hundreds of concertgoers were so thrilled by Dr. Yee’s performance that they arose from their seats to give him a standing ovation. I have never seen that done before! Besides his musicianship, we admired his humble attitude in that he immediately acknowledged the orchestra and conductor.
Speaking of the orchestra, the Kamuela Philharmonic provided an excellent foil to the piano. The large orchestra never overshadowed the piano, which was given its rightful place at the center of attention. The Concerto is not one where orchestra and solo instrument have equal say; there are many places where the piano plays alone. Occasionally, the orchestra does take over (giving Dr. Yee a chance to wipe his brow – what happened to the air conditioning?!). Throughout, the orchestra seems to be making a comment, or accentuating something the piano is saying, or repeating a theme while allowing the pianist to exhibit their digital gymnastics as embellishments.
Tchaikovsky originally wanted one of his colleagues, Nikolai Rubenstein, to debut the work, but Rubenstein said that it was unplayable. He was wrong. While the Concerto does indeed have passages that would seem too intricate to be playable at the speed Tchaikovsky required, it became a crowd favorite from its first performance in 1875, to Cliburn’s (when it was the first classical record to sell a million copies) in 1958, to this exhilarating performance by Thomas Yee in 2019. A century and a half and still counting!
After such a great first piece, what should the Kamuela Philharmonic do after intermission? The choice of Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No, 2 in D Major was not the best idea. The audience was ready for something delightful and refreshing – after dinner sorbet – and the Sibelius is dark and difficult – fruitcake after a heavy meal. It was hard to digest.
Unlike the Tchaikovsky, there are no melodies to hang on to in the first three movements. The first movement seems indecisive, with notes that seem like they will develop into melodies, but they don’t quite do so; there are phrases that seem on their way to somewhere and then they just stop, followed by something completely different. It’s like looking into peepholes at tantalizing images of majestic craggy cliffs, then of shimmering water, then a forest in winter – and each time suddenly having the peephole slammed shut. The second movement is ominous, beginning with one low tympani roll, and then the bass – it’s rare to have bass solos! – playing pizzicato notes followed by cellos doing the same, and then finally a bassoon in smooth contrast to the pizzicato which continues underneath. You feel like you’re looking at the ocean in a nightmare and seeing it totally covered with plastic trash. It is not until the Finale that at long last, there is a beautiful fully developed folksong-like melody, providing long-awaited resolution. It’s rare to have such a long buildup of broken fragments and foreboding rumbling; in the Finale, you can breathe again like at an unexpected happy ending to a horror film. Maybe we will survive! To be clear, this is not a criticism of the Symphony which is indeed a marvel of form and content, but it is a piece that belongs either at the beginning of a concert or is the main event.
With such a challenging work and after the Tchaikovsky, hats off to the orchestra for their mighty efforts. As always, the tympanist Sharon Cannon was a wonder, the woodwinds with the important flute, oboe and bassoon parts were right on, and special kudos go to the brass section. The horns had a big role in both the pieces, and you can’t cover mistakes when you come in fortissimo as in the opening of the Tchaikovsky and in the second movement of the Sibelius. They shone!
We’re always grateful both for the opportunity to see and hear musicians of the stature of Dr. Yee, and for the exceptional talents and dedication of the members of our beloved Kamuela Philharmonic. What would we classical music lovers do without them!
Meizhu Lui didn’t know there was any other kind of music except classical until she hit junior high! Piano and flute have been her own instruments of choice. She is now pursuing her bucket list goal of deepening her musical knowledge and skills.
Video/Photos: Steve Roby
For more info on the Kamuela Philharmonic Orchestra, please visit their website.