Pianist Golka Offers Soul, Technique in Performance with USC Symphony

A review of the USC Symphony Orchestra's Nov. 18 concert at the Koger Center

By David Lowry | November 20, 2014

A review of the USC Symphony Orchestra's Nov. 18 concert at the Koger Center. Donald Portnoy was the conductor. The two works on the program were Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B-flat and Serge Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30. The pianist was Adam Golka.

It was good to hear a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B-flat if for no other reason than it is played much less often than any other of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. For a lot of people, it would fit well on SCETV Radio’s Classical Unknown program. All sorts of surprises are in the work. First, it hardly begins in B-flat — harmonies wander around as if it were written 50 years after Beethoven lived. But when the meandering stops, we hear something very classical. There are many repetitive rhythmic figures, with a rest on the beat, followed by quick notes as well as numerous syncopated passages. Not everyone in the orchestra was comfortable with the energy required to make those rhythmic traps work.

The second movement of the symphony brought the most touching playing. While the rhythmic traps continue, the slow tempo allowed for all to play with rewarding results. Especially gratifying was the unblemished playing of the principal clarinet, flute, bassoon and horn.

There were times in the last two movements when one must recognize that “minimalist music” wasn’t invented by such composers as Steve Reich and Philip Glass — Beethoven had a proclivity in many places to latch onto a chord or rhythmic motif and keep it going for more measures than expected. Classical music lovers of symphonic works must be grateful to be reminded of these historic moments.

A complete turnaround was next with the Rachmaninoff concerto and the entrance of Adam Golka, a 26-year-old who is rising to the top of the ladder of astounding pianists. Moreover, he was born and raised in Texas, educated at Rice University in Houston, at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, and at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. He is a true American prize. His parents are Polish and his mother taught him a lot about being a musician. He was smart enough to listen.

Rachmaninoff’s third concerto was written for Josef Hofmann, a Polish pianist once regarded as the world’s finest. Some may know that Hofmann lived in Aiken, South Carolina, about 100 years ago, where one can find a historical marker about his residency and contribution to education and the arts. Hofmann, however, did not like the third concerto, and he never played it.

What happened with our university orchestra was astounding. After a slightly shaky beginning, everyone in the orchestra settled into the challenge and worked nearly flawlessly for the next 45 minutes. For a conductor, there is hardly a page in the score where the tempo remains the same or instrumental parts enter at unexpected moments. Conductor Donald Portnoy clearly loved the challenge and mastered it.

How could one not work for perfection? Golka put the challenge in front of conductor and orchestra with incredibly fine technique and the expressive music-making of the greatest masters. Looking at the score, one wonders first how Rachmaninoff composed the notes, but moreover how a pianist can memorize literally tens of thousands of notes. But that isn’t enough, of course. The genius of super-talent doesn’t stop with ability in music — it must have soul. Golka has the soul. His intimate involvement with phrasing and nuance is superb. It was an incredible experience for all concerned.

Tumultuous ovation. Encore? Of course. Golka turned to Johannes Brahms with the Intermezzo in E-flat. It was a love note to the orchestra, the conductor and the audience. Come back, Adam.