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Local classical music performers and presenters are beginning to emerge from pandemic hibernation, hoping the spring will last. Soka Performing Arts Center is jumping back into the fray with four classical performances this month, the first of which was Friday night, your reviewer seated centrally, a venue-provided KN95 mask snugly on face, pen and notepad firmly in hand. He hadn’t been inside a concert hall for two years.

The performance brought together two venerable pianists — American Garrick Ohlsson and Russian American Kirill Gerstein — for a program of formidable music for two pianos. It had a can’t-miss kind of vibe to it, in anticipation, but proved only modestly successful in the event.

The agenda featured music of the early to mid-20th century, big works by Rachmaninoff and Busoni, and somewhat smaller ones by Ravel and Busoni/Mozart. It nicely balanced the familiar with the intriguing, and certainly looked challenging enough to test the mettle of any piano duo you could think of.

Ohlsson and Gerstein were certainly up to it, no complaints. Ohlsson, 73, was winner of the Chopin Piano Competition back in 1970, still the only American to do it; he has recorded extensively, including all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas and the complete works of Chopin. Gerstein, 42, counts the Rubinstein Competition and a prestigious Gilmore Artist Award among his accolades. He has also recorded extensively. Interestingly, Ohlsson and Gerstein have both made recordings of Busoni’s mammoth and rarely performed Piano Concerto.

Both pianists are known for their considerable technical abilities on the instrument and they chewed up anything these composers threw at them, barely perspiring. The real question was whether or not they’d be a good match for each other, but here there turned out to be nothing to worry about. Though they revealed different musical personalities — Gerstein pointed and energetic, bright and volatile, Ohlsson calmer and modest, at ease and breathing — they meshed nicely, their timing perfect, no fuss, their tones complementary, no fighting.

They captured all the doom and gloom of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, the composer’s last composition, from 1940, better known in its orchestral version. Their tempos remained on the slowish side, the better to highlight the rhythmic power and tonal torque of this score. But robbed of its sumptuous orchestration, this music tended to meander in its lyrical sections and remained monotonous in tone.

In terms of coloring, two pianos aren’t always better than one; the textures can get thick.

One wanted to like the other big work on the program, Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica, better than one did. Inspired by Bach’s The Art of the Fugue and indeed envisioned as a kind of completion of it, the work is described in the literature as one of the composer’s major achievements. If a half hour of dour contrapuntal mechanics leading to a quadruple fugue is your kind of thing, this may be your work. I found it insufferably ponderous and dull, and not at all helped by the two-piano heaviness and the reverberant hall acoustics.

Garrick Ohlsson, left, and Kirill Gerstein stand to take a bow during an evening of music for two pianos at Soka Performing Arts Center. Credit: Photo courtesy of Soka Performing Arts Center

It remained, as it often does, for Ravel to save the day, and this he did. His La Valse, which closed the program, is a dazzling piece of clockwork in its two-piano version. Here we had a piece specifically conceived for pianos (even though Ravel also orchestrated it), which, unlike the Rachmaninoff and Busoni pieces, creates all sorts of colors, perfumes and atmospheres on the way to its apocalyptic climax.

Ohlsson’s approach — he was playing the lead part here — was ideal too, relaxed and steady, allowing the music to unwind and intertwine of its own accord, slowing building to a colossal fortissimo.

The concert opened with Busoni’s Duettino Concertante, a straightforward two-piano arrangement of the finale to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19, which made a lively and merry overture. It ended, in encore, with a quick and sugary dessert, a movement from the Concert Paraphrase on “Powder Her Face” for two pianos by Thomas Adès, which the composer concocted rather in the manner of Liszt.

The classical season at Soka continues this month with visits from Joshua Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, violinist Ray Chen and the Pacific Symphony.

Timothy Mangan is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at timothymangan5@gmail.com.

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