Each season, when symphony programs are planned, all-Russian concerts appear frequently. Russian composers vie in popularity with Germanic (i.e. Germany, Austria) composers, yet we do not advertise "all German" programs. Russian works from the common practice period (19th and early 20th centuries) remain a little more exotic, are viewed as more "other" in the pantheon of concert favorites. Friday's ISO concert, no. 14 in its current season, offered two Russian stalwarts along with a fellow fringe composer, the "lazy" Anatole Liadov.
Liadov (1855- 1914) has a meager output of fairly solid works full of fantasy and great brevity. ISO guest conductor Hans Graf opened his program with three of Liadov's short tone poems, Baba Yaga, Op. 56, The Enchanted Lake, Op. 62 and Kikimora, Op. 63--all three lasting about 20 minutes. Baba Yaga, unrelievably loud, displayed a continuing bass ostinato while The Enchanted Lake was unrelievably soft and languid with a prominent use of the bass drum.
Kikimora is Liadof's most popular work, with some sfortzandos (sudden loud chords) interrupting the reverie, plus some nice work by Roger Roe on his English horn. Graf conducted all three at the orchestra's standard, expected performance level.
Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 63, followed, with Canadian guest soloist James Ehnes, 40, a marquee fiddle player who plays everywhere and records (nearly) everything. After experiencing Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto, I always find Op. 63 a disappointment. That spark of linear and harmonic inspiration seems lacking, not to mention, especially for Prokofiev, a lack of bright orchestral colors. Moreover, Ehnes, otherwise possessing an evenly centered tone and the chops to sail through Prokofiev's myriad perorations, seemed to be losing the "fight" to be heard above the strings in the two outer movements. He only fully displayed his quite agreeable tone in the slow movement.
Followed by muted applause and only two "curtain calls," Ehnes encored with the brief "Presto" from Bach's unaccompanied Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Minor. That addition brought about a full standing ovation. What does that tell us about the audience response to the Prokofiev?
Saving the best till last, Graf, gave us a well executed Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, a piano piece using (of course) the orchestration by Ravel. Here is perhaps one of the few cases where the orchestration considerably improved on the piano original, whose shades of gray in the Mussorgsky exploded into vivid colors and pictorization by Ravel, that master of the orchestra.
The "exhibition" Mussorgsky refers to is of watercolors by one Viktor Hartmann, a friend of Mussorgsky who had recently died. Such titles as "The Gnome," "The Old Castle," "Tuleries," "The Oxcart" "Catacombs," "The Hut of Baba Yaga" and "The Great Gate of Kiev" are interspersed in part by "Promenades." The latter accompanies the viewer walking from one painting to the next. Few works merit both being an orchestration vehicle and being a great piece of music; Pictures easily achieves both.
All of which points herein to Graf's sterling podium artistry. He had the orchestra "on fire" with his persistent beat galvanizing each section--each solo appearance into a precise whole. Graf did for Pictures what he did for Beethoven's Missa Solemnis in his previous appearance here last October: purvey the essence of each work. April 1