Florida Orchestra pulls off difficult Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3

TAMPA — You can't help but be on the edge of your seat as Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 surges into its explosive finale. How will the soloist ever make it through this madly difficult music?

No worries. Lilya Zilberstein was at the keyboard Friday night with the Florida Orchestra, and the Russian pianist brought a refreshingly down-to-earth approach to the famous "Rach 3,'' with a brisk, rough and ready style, tossing off thick clusters of notes as if she was chopping up a cord of wood, and I mean that as a compliment.

Zilberstein and the orchestra, conducted by music director Stefan Sanderling in Ferguson Hall at the Straz Center, got off to a good start in the wonderfully soulful piano melody in the first movement that evokes images of the wind-blown steppes. Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky were the masters of that sort of musical scene painting. The challenge is not to let the orchestral accompaniment muffle the soloist, and all was in fine shape.

The slow movement is a series of variations in the grand romantic style, Rachmaninoff's homage to the concertos of Schumann and Grieg, and Zilberstein carried it off gorgeously. At first, I thought her stamina was flagging in the finale, but the pianist seemed to gain a muscular second wind. It was almost as if she went into a kind of trance to achieve the uncanny combination of velocity and nimbleness needed to negotiate endlessly complex figures in the upper register. Only at the end, as the crowd roared, did she come down to earth.

A Sibelius double bill opened Friday's program. The Finnish composer was the most radical symphonist of his generation, and his development was on display in contrasts between the tone poem En Saga (1893) and his single-movement Symphony No. 7 (1924). En Saga has an enjoyable old-fashioned quality, like watching a classic black and white movie on TV. Nature is illustrated with fluttery winds for bird calls and the ominous brass and skittery strings that give the music a spooky, lost-in-the-woods feel.

Principal trombone Dwight Decker was featured in the Seventh, sounding the theme three times. Sanderling held things together until about three-fourths of the way into the 20-minute piece, when he allowed the playing to become too busy, breaking the spell. But the final C-major chord was astonishing.

Reach John Fleming at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

. If you go

Russian soul

The Florida Orchestra repeats the program at 8 tonight at Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg, and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater. $20-$67, with student tickets $10. (727) 892-3337 or toll-free 1-800-662-7286; floridaorchestra.org.

Florida Orchestra pulls off difficult Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 04/16/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 16, 2011 12:26am]

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