Vadym Kholodenko. Courtesy of the artist.

Kholodenko Begins Challenging Prokofiev Obstacle Course with FWSO

Works by Brahms and Verdi were thrown in for good measure.

2013 Cliburn gold medalist Vadym Kholodenko took on the obstacle course otherwise known as Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Friday night at Bass Performance Hall, and emerged from the relentless test of technique, stamina, and musicianship with a calm smile.

Kholodenko’s performance was the centerpiece of a subscription concert of the Fort Worth Symphony conducted by music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya, and marked the first installment of a two-year project during which Kholodenko, the orchestra, and Harth-Bedoya will perform all five of Prokofiev’s piano concertos. Dark-hued but dazzling, No. 2 is an obvious choice to launch the series; the less-well-known and somewhat thornier No. 5 will be nestled between crowd-pleasers by Beethoven and Richard Strauss in March 2015. The remaining three will turn up during the 2015-16 season. The most admirable aspect of the project is the re-examination of Nos. 4 and 5, underplayed masterpieces that deserve a hearing in these parts. The immediacy of Nos. 1, 2, and 3 are guaranteed to keep the audience interested.

While the pianistic pyrotechnics are the most obvious element of Concerto No. 2, the work’s musical and philosophical content, as this performance reiterated, are likewise compelling. Prokofiev, as a refugee living in Paris in the 1920s, reconstructed the concerto and imbued the revised version with a powerful sense of nostalgia for lost Russia combined with the electricity of Paris in the 1920s. One can’t help speculating that Kholodenko, who, according to a recent report in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, has chosen to settle in Fort Worth and continue focusing on his career in the west, consciously or unconsciously taps into the pungent tension between the soul of eastern Europe and the vibrant energy of post-industrial culture.

While pianist Kholodenko obviously has the chops for the sheer athleticism of the piece, he likewise has the fine, less immediately evident points under control—evident in his delicate and appropriate micro-management of the pedal and balance of voices in that hypnotic opening statement of the sweeping main theme of the first movement. After emerging half an hour later from the trial-by-fire, responding to five curtain calls, he produced the strikingly lean, sturdy lyricism of late-seventeenth-century English composer Henry Purcell’s Ground in G, about as far from the volcanic turbulence of Prokofiev as one can go.

The concert as a whole followed the old-fashioned standard arrangement of overture-concerto-intermission-big symphony, with Verdi’s Overture to Nabucco in the opening slot and Brahms’ Second Symphony for the evening’s finale. While the retreat from contemporary music this repertoire represents is regrettable, it’s hard to complain about either Verdi or Brahms, or the nice contrast between the former’s obvious opera-house gestures and the latter’s grand and subtle architecture. The orchestra’s strings were in top-notch form throughout the concert, displaying their characteristically clean, clear, quality. Slightly imprecise attacks—particularly in exposed brass—occasionally distracted from the otherwise well-shaped, enjoyable, and often exciting concert.