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The “Emperor” gets all the glory, but at least one other of Beethoven’s five piano concerti deserves special mention for its overall quality — the third concerto in C-minor, Op. 37 — and this work received a fine performance by pianist Keiko Sekino of the East Carolina University music faculty and the ECU Symphony Orchestra, led by Jorge Richter.
A large-scale work with grand orchestral moments and even grander solo moments, the concerto demands both strength and delicacy on the part of the soloist and a wide range of dynamics on the part of the orchestra, both in support of the soloist and in many lead passages. Neither the soloist nor the orchestra disappointed, and high marks go to the students who, with only minor exceptions, provided an accomplished reading.
Sekino, playing from memory, had complete control over the music from the start. After a long introductory theme from the orchestra in the opening allegro con brio movement, full of drama and foreboding, the piano comes in with its familiar theme and moves along in brisk partnership with the orchestra. Her playing of the extended cadenza at the end of the movement was especially good, as was her solo passage to open the lovely second largo movement. Her solos in the final rondo-allegro movement were splendid (and did her right hand ever get a workout!). While the tempo in the final movement might have seemed a bit slower than usual, this suited the student players and let the music breathe more.
The piece contained several special moments. One noticed nice interplay between the soloist and the violins and then the cello response to the piano line, in the first movement. The orchestral restatement of the opening theme of the second movement was well-played. Sekino’s arpeggios in the second movement absolutely shimmered, as she seemed to caress the keys, and the strings provided the softest of cushions in support of the piano at the end of the second movement. The dance-like rhythms of the final rondo were never lost and moved along crisply throughout. The only drawback was an occasional shaky entrance by the winds in a few exposed passages, but otherwise, this was a warm, sensitive performance, played with both passion and skill.
The orchestra opened the concert with Respighi’s four-movement Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 3, for strings, and Richter’s first and second violins were especially strong. At times, the five violas seemed a bit overwhelmed by the other strings; perhaps the score calls for a much smaller viola section, but three or four more players probably would have improved the sound from that side of the stage. The piece demands a variety of playing techniques: both the bowing and the pizzicato sections were played well, and a pretty good balance was maintained throughout.
The concert closed with Strauss’ wonderful tone poem “Death and Transfiguration,” and the students met the challenges of this large-scale piece quite well. The strings played with skill and sensitivity from start to finish, and several individual players offered fine solo and small ensemble passages.
The opening largo was appropriately soft and contemplative, with nice harp playing by Vonda Darr and solo first violin passage by Elizabeth Upson, before moving into the drama of the allegro, molto agitato. The mood shifts in the third section were handled well, and the elegance of the closing moderato section built majestically on ascending string scoring with good brass and wind support. As in the Beethoven, a few exposed entrances were shaky, and the brasses as a group sounded a bit small — perhaps too small in number for the grand crescendo passages? — but overall, this was a satisfying performance.
Richter conducted with a firm hand, leading the players in such a way to complement Sekino nicely in the Beethoven concerto and also providing a light enough touch for the Respighi and a more forceful approach to the meatier music of Strauss.
Without a resident symphony orchestra in Greenville, and except for occasional visits by large touring ensembles, the ECU Symphony Orchestra provides the only music of this kind for local residents, and this performance should have been heard by more than the small audience in attendance. Those who attended were not disappointed.