Each season, when symphony programs are planned, all-Russian
concerts appear frequently. Russian composers vie in popularity with Germanic (i.e. Germany,
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 (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.
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
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
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
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