I went to hear Rachmaninoff but was carried away by Shostakovich.
Both composers were born in Russia and their music was performed beautifully all through the night by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Saturday at Strathmore, led by another Russian-born musician, the guest conductor, Dima Slobodeniouk, making his BSO debut.
The standing crowd loved him and the guest pianist, Simon Trpceski from Macedonia, calling them back three times when the duo completed the first part of the program, Sergei Rachmaninoff's The Rock, Fantasy, Op. 7 and his Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Minor, Op. 40.
Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) wrote The Rock, a "tone poem" when he was only 20 and, according to program notes, based it on an 1885 short story by another Russian, Anton Chekhov, about an old man, enticed by a younger woman who captured his heart and left him in the morning. (Sigh. Do things change?)
The piece begins and ends with the man's depression, foreboding, heavy bassoon notes which evoke a castoff, the rock, indeed. The flute conjures up the young miss, bringing to mind the innocent Peter as in Peter and the Wolf (which the BSO will play April 6 at the Meyerhoff in Baltimore).
An "explosion" of great strength signals the end of the man's fairy tale and his return, sadly, to reality.
From the mood of despair (carpe diem), the orchestra moved to Rachmaninoff's "stepchild," his Piano Concerto No. 4 which he re-wrote and revised over a period of 27 years, probably his least performed piano concert today, and it's not difficult to understand why, when compared to his other works. The orchestra could not have played it better, absolutely magnificent to hear but, nonetheless, it is overshadowed by the composer's Third Piano Concerto which the BSO played at Strathmore in January. Oh well, there is no going wrong with a choice of Rachmaninoff, no matter what the piece.
During the production, Trpceski frequently turned his head to the right angle of the piano to look at members of the orchestra, his fingers never stopping their work on the keyboard. In a few instances he rose several inches from the bench, almost in an unconscious state, while his fingers continued to hit the right notes. Can he play blindfolded?
Meanwhile, from his back, Conductor Slobodeniouk bore a strong resemblance to a shorter President Obama.
To the delight of all and to satisfy those hungry for more, Trpceski returned to the stage upon his finish to play what some of us believed was a short Chopin piece which he dedicated to (it sounded like) an 89-year-old woman in the audience whose life "was turned around at age 2" by music. Bravo!
After intermission came Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11 in G Minor, Op. 103, "The Year 1905."
Knowing a little of the history and basis for the symphony, ably supplied by Janet E. Bedell in the program notes, made it more alluring.
The composer (1906-1975), who was to become quite the political composer, was born in St. Petersburg about 18 months after approximately 3,000 peaceful demonstrators marched to the Winter Palace on January 9, 1905 to present Tsar Nicholas II with a petition requesting improvement to their harsh living conditions. Among their requests: an eight-hour work day with limited overtime, "equality of all persons," and a progressive income tax.
Although Nicholas was not in the city and therefore not threatened, his soldiers fired upon the citizens, killing several hundred and igniting the spark which ultimately led to the Russian Revolution of 1917. The day is known as "Bloody Sunday."
The first movement is entitled "The Palace Square," and begins with an almost inaudible hum from the cellos for several minutes before the violas join in, strengthened by dual harps which, combined, present increasing anxiety and anticipation. The tempo significantly expands in the second movement, "The Ninth of January," diminishes, and then becomes louder later on. The collision of discordant instrument sounds is frequently heard throughout.
The music grows more vigorous over movements, becoming almost painfully loud as the killings are realized by listeners. The work contains so many powerful clashes, it seemed that the murders of protestors did not cease until near the end of the work.
The third movement, "In Memoriam," a "threnody," with horns, cellos, basses, and brass, honors the memory of all oppressed. Like a razor's slice, the fourth and short final movement is "The Tocsin," the sounding of an alarm bell.
The ending is abrupt and took the audience by surprise, for just a few solo claps were heard in the chamber, soon followed by a burst of wild applause as the realization the symphony had ended and the cessation of the music was not a movement transition, after all.
Three curtain calls summoned the conductor back to the stage, and he eagerly shared acclaim with orchestra members.
I have toyed with the idea of traveling to Russia this summer, attracted by the recent completion of Robert Massie's Catherine the Great. Having been enraptured many years ago by his Nicholas and Alexandra, and starting his Peter the Great, after spending the evening with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and all the Russians, I ask myself: Whom am I kidding?
BSO concerts coming up at Strathmore:
Apr. 11, 8 p.m.
Bond and Beyond: 50 years of 007
Debbie Gravitte, vocalist
Didi Balle, writer and director
Brahms - Symphony No. 1
Zachary DePue, violin
Nicolas Kendall, violin
Ranaan Meyer, double bass
Jennifer Higdon - Concerto 4-3
Prokofiev - Symphony No. 4
Jean-Philippe Collard, piano
Saint-Saëns - Piano Concerto No. 3
Prokofiev - Selections from Romeo and Juliet