Alexander Tutunov launched the 2018 season of his popular piano series at the Oregon Center for the Arts this Friday last with a brief curtain speech that showcased his usual jocular, self-effacing humor, reminding us of why he is such a respected and admired member of the creative community in Southern Oregon. But his reputation and respectability extend far beyond the Valley — a fact that continues to be made evident by the quality of performer that Mr. Tutunov so reliably brings to our community from around the world.
Friday evening was no exception, and featured an all-Russian program performed by the extraordinary pairing of Nikita Fitenko and Katerina Zaitseva, the Washington, D.C., based piano duo who have wowed audiences worldwide with their sensitive and technically dazzling performances. The program featured works of Pytor Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Medtner, Alexander Scriabin and, of course, a healthy dollop of works from the Russian master, Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Mr. Fitenko launched the proceedings with a gorgeous rendition of four extracts from Tchaikovsky's "The Seasons" — itself a compilation of 12 brief character pieces written in 1876, with each vignette named after a single month of the year. For this evening, the selection included "October," "April," "November" and "December." Mr. Fitenko gave a charming and delicate presentation of these exquisite miniatures, which carry with them a pervasive Romantic aspect. "The Seasons" was first arranged for orchestra in the early 1940s, and has been a staple of orchestral arrangement ever since.
Fitenko's performance was followed by Ms. Zaitseva's arrival onstage for a lush rendition of "Forgotten Melodies" from Nikolai Medtner's "Sonata Reminiscenza." Mr. Medtner was often referred to disparagingly during his composing days in Paris as the "Russian Brahms" — his approach to music was seen as somewhat pedantic and academic. This is not an entirely fair accusation; the "Sonata Reminiscenza" is a poetic and contemplative work of great sensitivity, which belies Medtner's stubborn historical reputation as a pretender to the thrones of Messrs. Brahams, Scriabin and Rachmaninoff.
After the Medtner, Zaitseva was joined again onstage by Fitenko for perhaps the most moving performance of the evening, "Six Morceaux" from Rachmaninoff "Barcarolle," a four-handed piano piece for which the two artists sat side-by-side at the keyboard of OCA's prized Steinway grand, their arms intertwined over the ivories to produce an elegant interpretation of a surprisingly gentle work from a composer with such a reputation for stentato acrobatics.
Zaitseva was left on stage to negotiate a beautiful interpretation of Scriabin's "Five Preludes," an intensely expressive, if somewhat tonally eccentric, work written by the composer during a highly productive period in 1914. Zaitseva is a compelling performer who is energetically unobtrusive, allowing her virtuosa talent to gently but powerfully speak for itself. While Fitenko is superb and, as a pair, Fitenko and Zaitseva are exceptional, it is Zaitseva who discreetly steals the show. This section of the program solidified her hold over the audience on this particular evening.
The night was rounded out by the ever-popular "Symphonic Dances" (Op. 45) of Rachmaninoff, where Fitenko and Zaitseva again took the stage together to joyously devour the three movements of this gorgeous arrangement for two pianos, which Rachmaninoff wrote concurrently with the orchestral version. Incidentally, it was also his final composition.
Tutunov continues to dazzle and inspire his audiences by bringing such exceptional global talents to the Rogue Valley. One would hope that classical music aficionados will continue to beat a path to his door. They will not be disappointed.
Nikita Fitenko and Katerina Zaitseva performed for one night only at the Oregon Center for the Arts on Feb. 2. For information on upcoming concerts in the Tutunov Series, as well as tickets, visit http://oca.sou.edu/events/category/tutunov-piano-series.
— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at email@example.com.