As amazed as we can be when we think of our beloved rock legends having penned some of the greatest songs of all time before the age of 25 or 30, there’s no comparing a four or five minute pop or rock song to the incredible achievement of writing a start-to-finish, brilliant 40 minute multi-movement work on the level of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 11.
Watching and listening to world-class, Venezuelan born Argentine pianist Sergio Tiempo’s fingers grace and take flight on the Steinway Grand Piano center stage at the Hollywood Bowl, it was hard to imagine the reality that the Polish-born composer penned this passionate, deeply romantic work in his late teens. He played the premiere as a soloist at the Warsaw National Theatre at age 20 in October 1830 during one of his farewell concerts before leaving Poland for Paris, where he spent the rest of his life.
In many ways, the charismatic Tiempo was the perfect pianist to showcase Chopin’s early genius for melody and inventive flights of fancy. Chopin was, of course, a prodigy who by the age of seven was giving public concert and had composed two polonaises (polish dances), in G minor and B-flat major. Tiempo, considered one of the most individual and thought-provoking pianists of his generation, made his professional debut at 14 at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and quickly became internationally renowned for his raw energy and musical versatility. His global appearances include a recital debut at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London’s International Piano Series.
Some commentary on Piano Concerto No. 1 tell us to focus on the “glittering” piano technique and not pay much attention to the formal structure or orchestral accompaniment. Chopin, in fact, disliked composing for the orchestra and only did so because pianists in his time were expected to write their own showpieces. That’s all the more fascinating because the concerto begins with the L.A. Philharmonic – under the deft, dynamics-filled direction of French conductor Ludovic Morlot, Music Director of the Seattle Symphony since 2011 – setting us up for Tiempo’s entrance with a blend of gentle, lilting lows and explosive highs. There were passages of dreamy quietude followed by sudden thrusts of swelling energy.
The piece is composed of three movements: Allegro mestoso, Romanze and Rondo. My in-the-moment notes about Allegro are as follows: “sweet graceful gentle piano, dreamy and into more dramatic flourishes…elegant footprints followed by wild, high to low end runs, breaking for orchestral swells, then back to a romantic flow…(Tiempo’s style is) sweet, graceful and delicate, and these sensitivities swing back effortlessly to more aggressive passions…The only thing missing was a ballerina to physically reflect the movement of the piece…”
My notes on the second movement, the emotional centerpiece: “gentle orchestra, very elegant, romantic, free-flowing with moments of sharp drama that ease back into soft and lyrical melodic content enhanced by the orchestra…lush, elegant with passionate swells, very sensual and soul-transportive…a dreamy delicate romance.”
I felt like if Chopin was writing off personal inspiration about a budding teen romance, this was the sensual, introspective expression of love, full of tenderness and hope. The third and closing movement, on the other hand, was all about celebrating love in an exciting way, a jubilant ecstatic declaratory dance. My notes: “Grand orchestral part easing into more whimsical, jolly, dancing with a spring in his step. There’s flutter and playful moments with sharp, percussive thrusts from the orchestra…the strings dramatically echo the exuberant piano runs expressing the deepest joys of young love…Tiempo’s hands are flying back and forth in ecstatic movement.”
That ecstasy remained after the final dramatic notes, when Tiempo rose quickly and hugged his conductor. This was pure unbridled joy that was more than a pleasant summer night at the Bowl…It was a reminder from Chopin via Tiempo that even during our darkest times, the magic of love can breeze in, captivate our souls and make us grateful to be alive.