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Top Russian pianist Mechetina dazzles in US debut with BLO

By David Weininger, Globe Correspondent, 2.07.2004.

These days we seldom get to encounter talented new artists without the benefits and burdens that come with knowing their work in advance, through recordings or at least by reputation. The audience at Thursday's free concert by the Boston Landmarks Orchestra had that rare opportunity, hearing the professional American debut of pianist Ekaterina Mechetina.

This 25-year-old Russian studied at the Moscow State Conservatory, so it was fitting that she tackled Shostakovich's First Piano Concerto, his graduation piece from the same school. On the evidence of this performance, Mechetina is a marvelous pianist, whose playing is bold and self-assured, very much after the Russian model. A lot of Shostakovich's piano writing in this early piece is highly percussive, and Mechetina could draw on vast reserves of power when attacking it.

She and conductor Charles Ansbacher took the concerto's outer movements at a quick pace, and Mechetina threw off almost all of its virtuoso fingerwork with ease and clarity. The force with which she delivered a string of octaves in the bass that leads to the slow movement's emotional climax was astonishing. Perhaps most impressive were her poise and presence: She is a dramatic performer, well worth watching as her career progresses. The Shostakovich swings between moods of earthy humor, sarcasm, and desolation, conforming nicely to Ansbacher's remarks from the stage about Russian music's basic characteristics. But the rest of this all-Russian program was oddly angst-free. The opening piece, "Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky," by the largely forgotten Anton Arensky, is an arrangement of a string quartet movement dedicated to Tchaikovsky's memory. It is a lightweight, somewhat sentimental piece, though its final variation is solemn and affecting.

The Arensky sounded downright distinguished, however, next to the "Festival Overture: Mayham Keldi," for strings and a drum, by Leyla Mujhdabayena. Ansbacher explained that he had heard the piece played by a youth orchestra during a recent trip to Kyrgyzstan. It's tough to see what interested him about it, though. The overture is banal, with simple harmonies and few memorable features – except an unfortunate resemblance to disco in some of the melodies and rhythms.

Tchaikovsky's well-worn Serenade for Strings closed the concert, and for all the work's passionate rhetoric, the performance was notable for demonstrating the piece's classical poise and control rather than its emotional extremes. Ansbacher rightly remarked on Tchaikovsky's admiration for Mozart, and he gave the audience a chance to revel in the Serenade's buoyancy and grace.

The Tchaikovsky featured the evening's best playing, as the BLO strings admirably balanced richness and transparency, and Ansbacher kept the music moving fluidly without milking it. The orchestra did well in general, though there were some rough intonation and smudged entrances. The cellos sounded warm and refined during their many solos, and trumpeter Dana Oakes ably dispatched the Shostakovich concerto's difficult obbligato part.

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