Memo: In the Belly of Boom-Boom

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Totentanz turns virtuoso Valentina Lisitsa to she-devil

Franz Liszt’s Totentanz gets a bad press. This extravaganza of variations on the Dies Irae for piano and orchestra has been called “a ridiculously overblown piece of boom-boom music” by one critic, and larded with “heavy-footed exhibitionism” by another. For a would-be pianist like me, however, it’s more than a just guilty pleasure to experience it in concert: It is so full of unabashed key banging and jaw-dropping pyrotechics that it amounts to aural-visual primal-scream therapy. 

There I was, Saturday, November 6th, in the belly of boom-boom—second row center at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa, with a massive black Steinway looming above me at the very edge of the stage. And trying to smash it to smithereens was Valentina Lisitsa, the perfect pianist-demon for this piece: reveling in technique for technique’s sake, ripping out glissandos as if she were firing a grenade launcher, and abandoning nuance to the lions of spectacle. Attacking the music full-bore with powerful arm gestures and fiendish delight—accompanied by silent-lip invocations to a deity, or familiar—she whipped up the audience, including yours truly, to a frenzy. 

What a mistake to play the easy Chopin Nocturne No. 2 in E Flat as an encore! This revealed her as an ordinary interpreter once stripped of her incredible technique. Meanwhile, Bruno Ferrandis did a fine job accompanying Lisitsa in the Liszt First concerto as well as the Totentanz, and bookending the evening with the Enescu Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra.