If Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein were to launch into orbit, he would far outdistance the Soyuz Space Station. From the moment of lift-off in his performance of Rachmaninov’s dramatic Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor with the San Diego Symphony, Gerstein soared upward, never stopping to look back, all the way through to the final pounding chord. Gerstein’s dynamic rendering created the ultimate climax to Jahja Ling’s all-Russian program that included Arensky’s charming Variations on a theme by Tchaikovsky, dedicated to his mentor, and Stravinsky’s energetic Symphony in Three Movements.

Gerstein was undeniably the evening’s shooting star. Trained both classically and in jazz, he is one of very few pianists to have won the prestigious Gilmore Artist Award for exceptional musicianship and personal magnetism. His thrilling rendering of this most demanding masterpiece, provided inarguable proof not only of his remarkable talent and musical accomplishment, but also of a unique personality that captivated the audience throughout his performance. His flawless technique, the ease with which he carried off the passages, each one more difficult than the last, left the audience breathless. By the finale, spectators were on the edge of their seats, swaying to the music, leaning over to absorb every note, as if trying to capture lightning in a bottle before it disappeared into the atmosphere.

Gerstein’s constant awareness of the orchestra was also extraordinary, continually leaning toward them, breathing with them, trying to stay as closely connected as possible. For a pianist to be so self-assured in his command of this punishing work that he can give himself over to the relationship with the players is a truly remarkable quality. Yet in spite of his facility and expertise he carried himself with absolute unpretentiousness.

As if that breathtaking experience weren’t gratifying enough, Gerstein treated the audience to an encore: Étude for the Left Hand by Felix Blumenfeld, Russian pianist, composer and teacher (and student of Rimsky-Korsakov). Gerstein briefly announced the work, mentioning Blumenfeld’s famous student Vladimir Horowitz (who made the concerto popular in the 1930s), then tossed off an impressive rendering of a piece that would have been fiendishly difficult to play with both hands. The audience, panting with delight, would happily have stayed for more.

Maestro Ling chose two intriguing works to lead up to this stunning finale, starting with the first Masterworks performance of Anton Arensky’s Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky. As mentor to both Arensky and Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky’s untimely death spurred both young composers to dedicate works to their older master. Based on Tchaikovsky's "Legend: Christ in His Garden", the fifth of his Op.54 Sixteen Children’s Songs, had inspired the theme and variations in the second movement of Arensky’s String Quartet no. 2 in A minor, and the immediate success of that piece motivated the composer to arrange it for chamber orchestra. The work begins with Tchaikovsky’s meditative, hymn-like theme. Each of seven variations weaves delicate threads into a fabric of sounds ranging from gentle and melodious to lively and virtuosic, in some places reminiscent of the Andante cantabile from Tchaikovsky’s first string quartet, and ending introspectively with the initial theme. The San Diego Symphony’s strings were shown off to full advantage, with ample opportunity to lavish the audience with their lush sound and to demonstrate the violin section’s technical prowess.

First performed with San Diego Symphony in their 1987-88 season, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements has not been heard here since the 1993-94 season. Begun in 1942, and considered Stravinsky’s first major work written after he emigrated to the US, some of its music was originally intended for a film score and ultimately evolved into a full symphonic work. Stravinsky was reluctant to call the piece “programmatic”, but by the time it was completed in 1945 and premièred in New York the following year, the composer acknowledged an inevitable connection between the work’s turbulence and chromaticism and the chaotic upheavals of World War II.

At times classical and melodious, chromatic and dissonant, the piece combines Mozartean classicism with arresting, ever-changing 20th century rhythms, its wild exuberance reminiscent of Stravinsky’s groundbreaking Le Sacre du printemps. From the surging whiplash that opens the piece’s Allegro - Overture, striking for its resemblance to the “Rumble” in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (Bernstein’s awe of Stravinsky was well documented), and throughout the relentless, panting motives heaving through the movement, the composer allows the audience no time to catch their breath.

By contrast, the Andante - Interlude second movement starts out with purely classical melody and accompaniment. It soon morphs into surprising, even jarring, dissonances, at moments briefly hinting at Mahler’s Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony, and foreshadowing Stravinsky’s only full-length opera, The Rake’s Progress. In Beethovenian fashion, the second movement transitions to the powerful con moto finale, its melodic and harmonic progressions evoking Stravinsky’s oratorio Oedipus Rex. Here the composer gives full attention to the winds and brass, with a mini-concerto for the bassoons (impressively played) and French horns leaping upward in filmic sweeps worthy of a high-quality Sci-Fi movie.

The precipitously changing meters in this movement would provide a challenge for any conductor, but Maestro Ling held his own, keeping the orchestra precisely together while losing none of the work’s energy or momentum. From beginning to end, it was a memorable Russian-themed evening that soared to the heights.