Jindong Cai, Music Director & Conductor
Approaching the Stanford University campus and finding a parking place on Sunday afternoon, May 12, was in itself an adventure, for I discovered that the annual “Stanford Powwow” was being held during the Mother’s Day Weekend in the Eucalyptus Grove adjacent to Bing Concert Hall. Many thousands of people were there to enjoy the three-day festival honoring Native Americans, their customs, their art, their songs and their dances. Thanks to a helpful policeman, I quickly found a place to park and was guided away from the hordes attending the festival and directed toward the concert.
As with so many other people encountering Bing Concert Hall for the first time I was impressed and awed by the grand spaciousness of its outer lobby. I was even more impressed by the acoustics of the concert space itself. Having been present in 1962 in New York City for the opening season of the new Philharmonic Hall (now “Fisher” Hall) and witnessing acoustic disaster at first hand, it was a great pleasure to observe at Bing Concert Hall how the experts got it right. There were early reports about extreme electronic enhancement of the sound – the scraping sound of musicians moving their chairs and the sound of musicians flipping pages of their scores, creating surprisingly audible and distracting sounds that startled members of the audience. One woman reported that the enhanced musical vibrations caused her dangling earrings to rattle like wind chimes, so much so that she had to remove them.
I heard no evidence of electronic enhancement being intrusive. The sound was fabulous, as though we were in someone’s living room hearing music on the best, most expensive stereo system in the world. I don’t mean this to imply in any way that the sound seemed synthetic. It didn’t. It was beautiful, natural sounding and just plain glorious!
At the beginning of the concert, the next to last in the “Beethoven Project,” Music Director and Conductor Jindong Cai addressed the audience and reminded us that the orchestra we were hearing on this occasion represented the combined players of the 40+ members of the Stanford Philharmonia (a chamber group) and the Stanford Symphony. Most amazing is the fact that 95% of the students performing in this orchestra are non-music majors pursuing degrees leading to careers in such fields as medicine, law, engineering and the sciences. These are students pursuing two paths in their lives, with their musical skills on such a high level they would be welcome in any professional orchestra anywhere.
Since this concert was a part of the ongoing Beethoven Project at Stanford, we were in for a treat on this occasion. We heard the less frequently performed Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4, and the great Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major with guest soloist Jon Nakamatsu, himself a distinguished Stanford graduate. The young orchestra players performed with admirable skill, both as ensemble musicians and as skilled principals and soloists – flutist Darien French-Owen, clarinetist Jeff Wolfeld, oboist Steven Robles and several others played some fine solos.
Jon Nakamatsu is a great musician, who also just happens to be a great pianist as well. His playing always serves the music and brings out the best in the score. Never have I heard the first movement cadenza or the gorgeous slow movement played better. In the very brief slow movement his tonal palette ran the gamut from the quietist pianissimo sotto voce to full bodied gorgeous cantabile, and his beautifully shaped phrases were elegance personified. His performance in the last movement was exciting to the nth degree. It was exhilarating. Responding to a standing ovation, he gave us one encore, Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu. I have heard him play this before and thought at the time. “It can’t be played any better than this.” I was wrong!
Jindong Cai presented Nakamatsu with a parting gift, a commemorative T-shirt as a souvenir of Stanford’s Beethoven Project.