Urbański launches ISO Russian Midwinter festival 

click to enlarge Violinist Philippe Quint
  • Violinist Philippe Quint

With January past its mid-way point, it was high time for the ISO to present its first classical concert of the new year.   And Friday's nearly sold-out house witnessed one of the best played programs in quite a while.  Our music director, Krzysztof Urbański, showed us that he can play Russian music to the nines.  This first of three all-Russian concerts, entitled Fate, Fantasy and War, gave us the fantasy part, saving its apropos work till the end.

Urbański began with Prokofiev's Russian Overture, Op. 72, an episodic potpourri of rhythms, tempos and moods in the composer's most mature style.   A product of 1939, the piece vies with some of his best music: the Fifth Symphony, the ballets Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet, the Third Piano Concerto (to be heard this coming weekend), etc.   Our players sailed through all the overture's perorations with excitement and panache. (Most unusually, Urbański conducted the piece using a score, something I had not seen him do for any previous work not involving a soloist.)

Russian-born American violinist Philippe Quint appeared next, soloing in Khachaturian's Violin Concerto in D Minor (1940).  Though of Armenian heritage (How many Armenian sur-names don't end in -ian or -yan?), Khachaturian spent much of his time in Soviet Russia, and is best known for his "Sabre Dance" from his Gayane Ballet. 

His Violin Concerto continues the potpourri elaborated so well in the preceding piece, with the violin engaged in much rapid passage work throughout the three movements.  At one point in the first movement Quint's violin was a perfect match with the entire cello section, with no one else playing.  He displayed a rich but well restrained tone, making his virtuosic work sound more legato than staccato.  Unlike many popular Romantic concertos, this one taxed the orchestra as much as the soloist.  All came through with flying colors.

Hornist Robert Danforth; oboist Jennifer Christen; flutist Karen Moratz; cellist Ahrim Kim; clarinetist David Bellman; bassoonist John Wetherill; -- and last but foremost -- concertmaster Zach de Pue and harpist Diane Evans presented their special solo talents throughout the four "exotic" movements of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, Op. 35, by far his most popular concert work.  And while I think this paean to The Arabian Nights is too-often programmed, Urbański and all these soloists made it come alive for me again. 

From the static "The Sea and Sinbad's Ship" through "The Tale of Prince Kalendar," "The Prince and the Princess," to the lively "The Festival at Baghdad-The Sea-The Ship is Wrecked-Conclusion" Urbański chose perfect tempos, taking the final movement much as a jet takes off a runway.  Furthermore, the orchestra maintained its precision in all four movements--with de Pue and Evans beautifully intoning the Scheherazade theme at the work's beginning and end.

Considering how well realized Rimsky's fanciful Middle-Eastern themes were wrought, it's a shame the composer didn't emulate this thematic style in a more symphonic work--something elaborating a more continuous sense of motion and development.  But wait a minute! He did! It's just never performed (but often recorded)--his Antar Symphony (No. 2 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 9).  Revised a number of times from 1875 to 1903, Debussy considered it to be Rimsky's finest orchestral work.  Would Urbański be game to try it next time around?  I think the audience would be game to listen.  Jan. 23; Hilbert Circle Theatre

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