Urbański conducts Russian warhorses 

click to enlarge Pianist Anna Vinnitskaya
  • Pianist Anna Vinnitskaya

Friday's Circle Theatre audience--with every seat taken--was treated virtually to complete dominance by Russians. (And that exposure, not being political in nature, was indeed a treat.) At 7 p.m. we heard a nationwide collection of outstanding high school musicians, the Honor Orchestra of America, making their annual trek here with an overture by Glinka and the opening movement of Shostakovich's 7th Symphony. The students easily maintained their "almost professional" reputation.

Just a few minutes after 8, Krzysztof Urbański mounted the podium to begin an all-Russian program with his own players: works by Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky. Actually the opener, the well known A Night on Bare (or Bald--take your pick) Mountain, was mostly written by Rimsky-Korsakov. He drastically rewrote Mussorgsky's "original" in 1886, five years after the latter's death, and that is the version everybody knows and loves.

A few of Mussorgsky's colleagues had dissuaded him from pursuing his first version, which he orchestrated as he wrote it in 1869. Finally published in 1968, it was thought too "wild" to capture an audience. It has since been recorded, so that one can judge for oneself. Energetically driven, with crisp attacks throughout, Urbański revealed the macabre character of St. John's All Hallows Eve, showing Rimsky's masterful orchestration, including his quiet close with church bells; Mussorgsky's original ends tumultuously.

Russian pianist, Anna Vinnitskaya, then joined the orchestra for another Russian warhorse, Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934). The referred theme is, of course, the 24th and last of Paganini's caprices for solo violin, one borrowed by many Romantic masters on which to write variations. Rachmaninoff's version, with its freer, more "rhapsodic" treatment of the Paganini theme, has become its most famous usage. Turned upside down in the famous 18th variation, it becomes a love theme, usually recalled separately from the original.

Brilliantly written for both piano and orchestra, the Rhapsody was put together by our forces to near perfection. Vinnitskaya, 31, showed us yet another young pianist as being part of the cream of today's world crop of sterling keyboard artists. Her fingers flew over the piano's 88 keys with a marvelous touch and control--every note cleanly heard, all of them shaped in proper proportion. It comes as no surprise that she was the winner of the 2007 Brussels Queen Elisabeth Competition.

In keeping with the "warhorse" nature of Friday's programming, Urbański closed with Stravinsky's 1945 version of the Suite from his The Firebird ballet (1909). Consisting of 12 dances from the ballet music, its most difficult one to execute is the "infamous" Infernal Dance of King Kastchei, a preview of Stravinsky's Modernist Russian style, well anticipating his Rite of Spring to come in 1913. Urbański took the dance at too nimble a pace to avoid some ensemble raggedness here and there. But he made up for it at the "Final Hymn," ending gloriously on a B major cadence. March 6-8; Hilbert Circle Theatre

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