Pianist Péter Tóth – Soloist with the Palo Alto Philharmonic

Pianist Péter Tóth

It is certainly no surprise that Palo Alto, one of the most interesting communities in the United States, has a fine community orchestra (it is known as the “Palo Alto Philharmonic,” now in its 24th year). It’s Conductor and Music Director, Thomas Shoebotham has had lots of experience with local and regional ensembles, including Opera San Jose, Peninsula Symphony, the San Francisco Concerto Orchestra and Berkeley Opera. He isn’t just a “stick waver” either, for he has paid his dues playing chamber music as well as appearing in solo performances on cello and piano.

Looking at the orchestra from the audience, you observe a lot of very young orchestra players (some appearing to be in their teens) mixed with some gifted amateurs from the community, plus a few very seasoned principal players whose volunteered presence adds immeasurably to the precision of the ensemble. During the first movement of the ending work on the program, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, there was a moment when suddenly I heard some very artistic viola playing. I checked out the printed program and discovered that the principal violist was Geri Actor, whom I assume is the wife of Assistant Conductor, Lee Actor, and most probably mother of the percussionist, Lee Actor (musical talent seems to run deep in the Actor family). A little later in the movement I heard a clarinet solo with lovely shaping of phrases and control of dynamics that would be a credit to any professional orchestra. Checking the program, although I couldn’t see him from where I was sitting, I assume it was principal clarinet, Geoffrey Burr. Throughout the evening’s program I kept hearing moments where I knew instinctively that to these players, it was not just a gig, but an exciting experience playing some of the great works in the orchestral repertoire. It was also an experience that was very satisfying for the audience — to hear a community orchestra, essentially of unpaid musicians, with a tiny annual budget of approximately $27K a year — making music on such a high level.

What drew me to this concert, schlepping the 150-mile round trip from the Monterey Peninsula, was to hear guest soloist of the evening, the brilliant young Hungarian pianist Péter Tóth, in a performance of Franz Liszt’s Totentanz (Dance of Death). Mr. Tóth will be appearing in a solo recital in Carmel, California, on Friday, October 28, a return engagement from a sold out, SRO performance the previous year. Thus, being in Palo Alto was a double treat for me, to hear a young artist of great substance and also a performance of a work that is more often heard in recorded performances than live. The intimate ambience of Palo Alto’s Cubberley Theatre (capacity 317 seats) could potentially have been overwhelmed by the ferocity and violence of Liszt’s Totentanz (not only is the theatre rather small for an orchestra performance, but the stage was so crowded that two of the basses were way off the stage on the right side playing in the dark).

But, neither orchestra nor soloist Tóth overwhelmed the acoustics of the hall, for no matter how much sound they produced, it turned out to be nicely controlled and never strident or ugly. Tóth not only impressed us with his fierce virtuosity, but also with the tenderness and soulfulness he projected in the quieter variations where his beautiful cantabile and exquisite phrasing served the music well and charmed us at the same time. Especially impressive was Tóth’s uncanny rhythmic precision, even while executing daunting leaps from one area of the keyboard to the other or rolling up glissandos and ending on some note in the high treble with unerring accuracy.

The opening work on the program was Bernstein’s Overture to Candide, conducted by the afore-mentioned member of the prodigiously musical Actor family, Assistant Conductor Lee Actor. Since this Overture is a work that is notoriously loud and borderline obnoxious it came as no surprise that Actor had the musicians emphasize every aspect of its strident qualities, but then, that is what this work is all about.

Something has to be said about Mr. Shoebotham’s pre-concert lecture. Sometimes pre-concert lectures are dry affairs with lots of easily forgotten facts and figures, but his turned out to be a little more audience involving. He asked us questions and got us to clap rhythms — not just the usual three or four beats to the measure, but some really irregular meters with five and seven beats, Then he went to the piano and played passages from some of the works on the program to illustrate just how easily Bernstein and Tchaikovsky could sneak in these awkward meters and make them sound so natural we weren’t even aware of how awkward they were. Then, he challenged us to recognize these rhythms when we heard them later during the performances. I later realized that I had been hearing these works for 40 years and never been aware of the subtleties he was showing us.

I once saw a Hollywood film where they portrayed a phony Eastern European conductor with a thick foreign accent explaining very slowly and dramatically to the orchestra members, “Gentlemen, ven you play zese notes, I vant you to think of the most beoyootiful sunset you ever saw, and bring zis feelink into your playink.”

There were no such theatrics from Mr. Shoebotham. We could tell from his pre-concert talk, he is a musician, he thinks like a musician, and he conducts like a musician.


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