It makes sense, if you’ve been playing Rachmaninoff for a half an hour, that a spirit of Rachmaninoff would inform anything you make up thereafter, and pianist Gabriela Montero’s encore after performing that composer’s mighty Concerto No. 2 was an improvisation on a theme suggested by an orchestra member. Violinist Noah Geller played the opening of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and Montero worked it into something that absolutely suited the plaintive theme even as it worked it into a frenzy of Rachmaninoff-ian melodic passion and octave thunders.
After all, how do you top the thunder of the concerto’s finale? Montero made her SPAC amphitheater debut—and Philadelphia Orchestra debut—playing the piece last Thursday, and it was as big-boned and impassioned as you could want.
Working with conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, Montero began with deliberate pacing, quickly swinging into the virtuoso abandon the piece demands. It’s a big, demonstrative piece with themes that have threatened to become too familiar over the years, but a performance as well-crafted as this reminds us that the original context needs no apology. In the second movement, there’s a long song-without-words passage, its theme asking gentle questions, and the lyrical side of Montero’s technique was put nicely into play. The martial opening of the fast final movement began with a piano flourish that charged into what seemed (appropriately) like a horserace, as soloist and orchestra surged together to the finish line, bringing the audience to its feet.
When the orchestra played Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in this theater a few years back with Charles Dutoit conducting, it was a performance of great architectural majesty, well suited to the complex piece. Guerrero found another, equally effective approach, emphasizing the many stories told along the way. Passages of humor, of tenderness, of sardonic excitement all got their places in the sun, and it again added up to a vibrant and wonderful whole.