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The Honolulu Advertiser

Updated at 4:03 p.m., Saturday, April 7, 2007

Pianist Wolfram brings tender touch to concert

Ruth Bingham

Larger Than Life

A Honolulu Symphony concert featuring William Wolfram, piano, and JoAnn Faletta, conductor

8 p.m. tonight

Blaisdell Concert Hall

$12-$65

792-2000, www.honolulusymphony.com

Pianist William Wolfram is a bear of a man, dwarfing those around him and making his lei look child-size. Even the grand piano seemed to shrink beside him.

One might expect power from such a man, but it was his lyrical pianissimo passages that shone Friday when he performed Beethoven's Concerto No.5 (the "Emperor") with the Honolulu Symphony.

Wolfram and Beethoven proved a felicitous pairing. The "Emperor" Concerto is replete with what the eminent musicologist Sir Donald Tovey called "purple patches" - sections that head unexpectedly off into remote keys, creating fleeting worlds of exquisite beauty. Wolfram excelled in those passages, his melodies tender, his pianissimos sparkling, his textures crystalline.

In this day and age, performers cannot just "follow tradition" for these older works: There are so many conflicting theories, performers must consciously choose which style to present.

Wolfram's was an unapologetically modern reading of Beethoven, on today's instruments for today's audiences. He did not adjust the pedaling to mimic the effect it would have had on the pianos of Beethoven's time, nor did he attempt to conduct while playing, saying, "I've never done that; it's beyond me. If someone can conduct and play at the same time, they may as well cook an omelet as well."

His interpretation was also less the virtuosic showpiece of Beethoven's time than the collaborative, integrated genre it has come to be.

Having performed both as a soloist and accompanist, Wolfram explained, "When you play a concerto, you are the soloist, so what you want to do is in the fore, but ... because of all the collaboration I did, I do a lot of listening. The collaborative things I did in the past definitely left their mark."

That mark was most evident in the grace with which he exchanged themes with the orchestra.

Wolfram and conductor JoAnn Falletta seemed to be of one mind, and the dialogue between them was both subtle and audible. What they created, even for those who know the work well, was a sense of wonder about what an astonishing, fantastic, wildly revolutionary work the "Emperor" remains, almost two centuries after it was composed.

Falletta embedded the "Emperor" among three lesser-known programmatic works (i.e., music that depicts non-musical events, as in a story): Weber's "Oberon" Overture, Stravinsky's "Fairy's Kiss" Divertimento, and Tchaikovsky's orchestral fantasy, "Francesca da Rimini."

Throughout, Falletta elicited excellent playing from the orchestra, a nicely balanced fullness of tone, and smoothly integrated ensemble, reminding everyone on both sides of the podium what a fine conductor she is.

Weber composed such vivid, exciting music for "Oberon" that it seems a shame the opera is no longer performed. But the "opera" was actually closer to musical theater, and of a style long outdated, with an overly complicated plot centered on visual spectacle. What we have left is a tantalizing gem of what might have been, the last overture of a hugely talented composer who did not live to see his 30th birthday.

The concert's orchestral peak was Tchaikovsky's "Francesca da Rimini," which closed the evening with a standing ovation.

Beforehand, Falletta filled in the details of the story printed in the program, which helped listeners understand how closely the music matches the tale, a canto from Dante's "Inferno."

With the opening chords, Dante arrives in the second circle of hell, reserved for those who fell from grace for sensual pleasures and whose punishment it is to be buffeted about by raging winds in eternal darkness. Falletta and the orchestra created a spectacular hell — thundering brass, percussion, frantically swirling strings.

Along with Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Tristan and Isolde, Dante encounters a young pair clinging desperately to one another. His guide, Virgil, calms the winds, and Francesca da Rimini comes forward, her voice rising up out of the clarinet's chalumeau register to sing a clear, plaintive tale in a lovely solo by Scott Anderson.

Francesca was married to Giovanni Malatesta, a deformed older man, and discovered only on her wedding night that the man who had wooed her and with whom she had fallen in love was Giovanni's handsome younger brother, Paolo. When Giovanni returned unexpectedly from one of his many trips, he surprised the lovers and killed them both. As the orchestra "sobs," the winds return and Francesca is swept away into the swirling blackness.

The deceit and tragedy of Francesca's marriage echoed only too clearly Tchaikovsky's own disastrous marriage, and his music tore at the soul.