The magic of Martha Argerich in Rome

The Orquesta Sinfonica Juvenil da Bahia conducted by Ricardo Castro at the Santa Cecilia Hall, Auditorium Parco della Musica – 15 September 2014

Ahead of the official opening of the 2014-15 Accademia di Santa Cecilia concert season on 25 October, when Evgeny Kissin will perform with the resident orchestra, September is dedicated to a series of concerts by four different international orchestras - Around the world in four orchestras - with each concert led by a renowned conductor and accompanied by an important soloist.

Monday evening saw the Brazilian youth orchestra Orquesta Sinfonica Juvenil da Bahia under the baton of Ricardo Castro joined by a very special guest – the legendary concert pianist Martha Argerich. Rightly hailed by many as one of the greatest pianists of our time, she is also a performer who is actively engaged in the musical education of young people, and is always generous and encouraging in her praise of younger musicians, so it was a joy to see her working with this extremely talented young orchestra.

For one reason or another, I’d never managed to see the divine Ms. Argerich play until Monday night. She retired from solo recitals some years ago, and while she does seem to have a busy schedule planned for next year, her concert appearances have become much rarer in recent times, and notoriously unpredictable – she has been known to cancel at the last minute on occasions. So when the house lights dimmed, and after what felt like an interminably long wait, the stage doors finally opened and the pianist and conductor appeared, I felt a wave of relief and genuine excitement. She is also known to suffer terribly from stage fright, and as if to assuage those fears, the Rome audience gave her one of the loudest and warmest welcomes I’ve ever heard at a classical music concert. The love for this artist was palpable, and she had yet to play a note!

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from the evening. Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no.1 is something of a warhorse, after all, and a powerhouse piece that Argerich has revisited several times in notable recordings. From the very second her hands first touched the keys – or rather, gently caressed them, such is the impression of her seemingly effortless technique - it was clear that the 73-year-old Argerich had lost none of her brilliant virtuosity, and that this would be a very special evening indeed. It was a performance of power and precision, but stripped of the bombastic, to leave a graceful, lyrical concerto, full of shimmering cascades of sound, and dynamic contrasts. She was mesmerising.

The roar of approval, protracted applause, and foot stomping at the end of the performance coaxed the pianist back out on stage for half a dozen or so curtain calls, before the audience was rewarded with an unexpected gift – an exquisite encore. It would be hard to think of a better close to her collaboration with the Brazilian Youth Orchestra, than the 1st movement from Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) entitled Of Foreign Lands and Peoples. Sheer perfection.

I had fully expected the rest of the night to be a rounding out of the programme, but instead the second half of the evening saw exhilarating and hugely enjoyable performances by the orchestra of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, followed by a nod to Brazil with Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No.4.

When Martha Argerich reappeared from the stage doors at the end of the concert, and took a seat in the audience to watch the orchestra’s encore, however, we knew we were in for a surprise! Zequinha de Abreu's Tico-Tico no Fubá brought the house down, with concert etiquette thrown out the window as the audience cheered and clapped along as the musicians stood up and danced as they played! It was a wonderful end to a memorable concert.

Full programme:
Piano Concerto no.1
Kinderszenen No.1- Of Foreign Lands and Peoples
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Villa Lobos
Bachianas Brasileira n. 4
Zequinha de Abreu
Tico-Tico no Fubá