Guerrero conducts riveting program

07.13.08
Giancarlo Guerrero
Akron Beacon Journal

Cleveland Orchestra sounds terrific; pianist gets standing ovation

The conductor Giancarlo Guerrero has a way of hurrying onstage as if he can't wait to get started. Saturday night, for his first time leading the Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom Music Center, his conducting was not only infectiously exuberant but insightful, too.

Born in Nicaragua, raised in Costa Rica and educated at U.S. music schools, Guerrero has joined the orchestra on numerous occasions recently, both at Severance Hall and on tour in Miami and beyond. While there were a few slapdash moments on Saturday, more often the orchestra sounded absolutely terrific under him.

Quite possibly, Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 sounded especially fresh and pointed because it followed (after intermission) the thick, dark score of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3. And the orchestra was in accord with Guerrero for a riveting performance. Together, conductor and players created an especially sweet, focused string/wind blend and a chamber music-like quality of players listening to each other.

Guerrero led with a clear point of view, that Beethoven was breaking ground in this early work. The performance was both crisply classical and thrilling, with Beethoven's surprises underlined (though not overdone) so we didn't take them for granted.

And here was another surprise: The high-speed facility of the playing made the Beethoven good company on a program with Rossini's Overture to Semiramide, led by assistant conductor Jayce Ogren. Piccolo player Mary Kay Fink and clarinetist Daniel McKelway popped out their solos with pizazz.

The Capriccio espagnol of Rimsky-Korsakov proved an ideal vehicle for the orchestra's strings, who sounded particularly quick and effervescent. More oomph was needed from the French horns to match the charisma of the rest of the winds in this Spanish-style writing.

There was plenty of virtuosity to go around on Saturday's program, which presented the Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein in his Cleveland Orchestra debut. Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 spools out in a long melodic flow, decorated with technical showmanship that in some florid sections turned momentarily into a blurry mash-up between soloist and orchestra.

Gerstein was born in 1979 in Russia and received his conservatory training in the United States. His technical prowess measured up to standards for a first-prize winner at the 2001 Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition, and Gerstein played with nuanced musicality, if not inspired imagination.

Rachmaninoff himself recorded the concerto in a 33-minute version, which is about seven minutes shorter than the complete version played on Saturday - and would have been enough. Gerstein went over big with the audience, who rewarded his performance with a standing ovation and cheers.