As principal keyboard player for the Nashville Symphony, pianist Robert Marler is rarely in the limelight. He’s usually in the background, near the harps and percussion, providing harmonic and rhythmic support, being a team player.
So I jumped at the chance to catch Marler’s Thursday night performance at Belmont University’s McAfee Concert Hall. A piano professor at Belmont, Marler was appearing with conductor Robert Gregg and the University Symphony Orchestra in Rachmaninoff’s perennially popular Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18.
One of the great Romantic concertos, the Rach Two is often approached as a showpiece, as an excuse for virtuosos to flaunt their fabulous techniques. Marler has technique to burn, and there was certainly razzle-dazzle in his performance, especially in quicksilver passages like the piano’s big glittery entrance in the third movement.
For the most part, though, Marler’s approach to Rachmaninoff struck me as understated. He seemed little interested in playing in the grand manner, with sweep and rhetorical drama. Instead, he focused on playing with clarity, bringing out hidden inner voices while highlighting the work’s overall architectural shape and structure. The results were not always electrifying, but they were lyrical and musical. The audience approved and gave Marler a standing ovation.
One interesting side note about Marler’s performance: He decided to forego the established custom of playing this Romantic concerto from memory and instead performed from the notes, which were displayed on a digital tablet. A wireless foot pedal was used to turn the digital pages.
Last year, New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini wrote an interesting article about the custom of pianists having to play everything from memory. Franz Liszt was the one primarily responsible for introducing the tradition and I have long believed that for Liszt this was primarily a stunt – he wanted to prove he could not only play Beethoven’s seemingly unplayable Hammerklavier Sonata but do it without benefit of the score. He was playing from the heart, a quintessentially Romantic gesture. This is just a hunch, but I bet if Liszt came back to life, he’d want a tablet.
Thursday’s concert opened with a performance of Mozart’s Overture to the Marriage of Figaro that was like your great-grandfather’s Mozart. Gregg made no attempt to follow the prevailing fashion of playing Mozart with a small, stripped-down, historically informed ensemble. He wanted to give his entire orchestra the chance to play, so on Thursday we got the Leopold Stokowski version of Mozart. The performance was short on nuance but was full of power and sweep, and Gregg did an outstanding job keeping this large force together.
As a warm-up to the Rachmaninoff, the orchestra also played Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol. This proved to be a terrific showpiece for the youthful orchestra. The strings played throughout with a golden sheen, and the winds and brass played with color and expression. Overall, the orchestra played with energy, festiveness and joy, and they were justly rewarded with equally enthusiastic applause.