Last night at Sunset Center conductor Max Bragado-Darman and the Monterey Symphony presented its second concert of the 2019-2020 season, and it was quite an unusual program. It featured Korean pianist Kun Woo Paik performing two concertos — Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, K. 595 and Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 15 in D Minor. Very rarely does a symphonic program contain no other works but a pair of piano concertos, and thereby hangs a tale.
On February, 23, 2014, Kun Woo Paik appeared as soloist with the Monterey Symphony in a spectacular performance of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, which is one of the most difficult works in the piano concerto repertoire (to read the review of this concert type in “Kun Woo Paik” in the search box in the lower right hand corner of this page). Those of us who witnessed Paik’s remarkable performance on that occasion knew that he would return some day. Well, that day finally arrived, and it afforded us the surprise of observing this artist in such contrasting roles, that we could have been convinced that we were hearing two entirely different pianists.
In the Mozart Concerto Paik was the ultimate ensemble pianist sharing the solo role with the orchestra and making music on an exalted level. We knew from Paik’s first entrance after the orchestral tutti that we were about to hear a subtle and masterfully artistic performance. Since in Mozart’s time, this concerto would most probably have been performed with a reduced orchestra of as few as 20 musicians, the larger ensemble of the Monterey Symphony made it occasionally difficult to hear some of Paik’s delicately shaped phrases at the beginning of the first movement, but as the movement progressed and the expected moments of Sturm und Drang surfaced, we heard Paik’s superb dynamic and expressive energy take over and give us a view of Mozart at his most expressive best. The second movement gave us more of Paik’s subtlety and expressive magic with a beautiful cantabile and a palette of dynamics from the the most delicate pianissimo to varying levels of mezzo forte and forte. The final Rondo was pure magic with delicious repartee back and forth with the orchestra. This was Mozart at its best.
After intermission we heard the Monterey Symphony musicians and Kun Woo Paik performing Brahms Concerto No. 1 in D Minor. Clocking in at almost 52 minutes, this is by any standard a huge and demanding work — pianist Emmanuel Ax said in an interview said that although he has been performing this concerto for over 50 years, it never gets any easier. On this occasion, Paik gave us a powerful performance that still managed to spin many beautiful moments. At the end of the gorgeous second movement we heard a beautiful trill that gradually reduced in volume to a mysterious pianissimo that made us strain to hear every note as it disappeared off into the ether. The third movement of the Brahms had many great moments (ah, what a delicious fugue).
Paik’s virtuoso skills were impressive indeed in the Brahms concerto, especially since the orchestra was so often so loud we had difficulty hearing the solo passages, but Paik made up for it with his powerful playing.
The audience was wildly enthusiastic with tumultuous applause and a prolonged standing ovation.