Russian throughout 

ISO Classical Series Program No. 16
Hilbert Circle Theatre
March 30-31

Alexander Lazarev is a veteran Russian conductor who clearly knows how to conduct Russian music. Making his second Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra guest appearance last weekend, he took us through well-interpreted, well-executed accounts of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture, Glazunov’s Violin Concerto — with young Russian guest soloist Philippe Quint — and Prokofiev’s sunny Fifth Symphony. And he did it all without baton in hand, substituting expansive arm and finger motions.

As fully titled, Rimsky’s Russian Easter Festival Overture — written in 1888 to evoke joining the pageantry of Christian belief with spring renewal — remains a popular favorite with audiences, though I find its thematic material somewhat boring and repetitive. Unusual for this composer is the use of pentatonic (the piano’s black keys) progressions throughout its 15 minutes. However, like his larger-scale Scheherazade, Russian Easter’s popularity exceeds its intrinsic musical value, resulting in both works generally being over-performed (though in fairness, Russian Easter was last given here in 1990).

But even that frequency could be better tolerated if Rimsky’s beautiful, four-movement Antar Symphony weren’t completely neglected in local programming. I’ve made several pleas in this column for Antar (an orchestral work that Debussy thought was Rimsky’s finest) to be played here, and will continue to do so until either it happens, I’m fired or I expire. In any case, Lazarev’s reading of Russian Easter was excellent: precise, balanced, nicely inflected.

Alexander Glazunov’s sole Violin Concerto in A Minor (1904) is his most popular work and is filled with lush, Romantic harmonies in search of a theme onto which we can rivet. We finally hear a march-like one in the final movement, but by then we are a little lost in the work’s discursiveness.

Quint’s violin playing keyed us into the concerto as much as anything the composer did. Using a rich, bright-sounding Stradivari instrument, his part dominated the orchestra. He also demonstrated perfect intonation and uniform, effortless bowing. Quint has the “chops” (as musicians say) to tackle any and all passages with seeming ease, and represents yet another young, virtuoso player, types that seemingly pour out of the woodwork these days. His solo encore, a set of variations by Paganini (on Friday), gave us more show-biz than artistry.

Prokoviev finished his Symphony No. 5 in B-flat, Op. 100 (1945) when victory for the Soviet Union was imminent at the end of WWII. As a confirmed, obedient servant of Soviet art (unlike Shostakovich), he produced in this symphony not a majestic, victorious paean, but a joyous, happy work very much in the accessible, tuneful vein of his nearly concurrent Cinderella ballet music. This was another marked but successful neo-Romantic regression from his earlier, “enfant terrible” years.

Lazarev successfully elaborated the symphony’s tunes, its structure (standard sonata-form in the first movement), its spicy harmonies. He enveloped the second movement — a duple-meter scherzo unusually marked Allegro marcato (every note “marked”) — with absolute control, including the precise speeding-up (accelerando) at the end. Principal clarinetist David Bellman handled the Finale’s principal theme with equal zest — a piece and a performance allowing the small but appreciative Circle audience to depart the hall with smiles on their faces.

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