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Symphony Soars in All-Russian Concert PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 06 November 2001 18:00
Sergei Rachmaninoff was an average composer and an excellent performer. He composed mainly in the 20th Century, yet the Romantic idiom dominated his work; while other composers were exploring the edges of modern composition, Rachmaninoff was unable to move beyond the high drama of the 1800s.

By contrast, Sergei Prokofiev – the other Sergei – was brash, precocious, and daring. Challenging the audiences of the time, Prokofiev didn’t back down when his music was not immediately loved. At the premiere of his Second Piano Concerto, some of the audience hissed and even booed the young composer-pianist. At the conclusion, Prokofiev defiantly stood up, and bowed before the audience, accepting their distaste for his music as adulation. It wasn’t until 10 years later that the piece became widely played.

Yet unlike Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff was a tragic figure, and his music reflected the melancholy associated with this status. He was the victim of Glazunov’s inept, drunken conducting on the opening performance of his First Symphony, of artistic persecution by Russia’s new regime, and of a ceaseless work ethic that probably contributed to his short life.

On October 3, the Quad City Symphony Orchestra (QCSO), led by guest conductor Zuohaung Chen and assisted by piano virtuoso Gustavo Romero, delved into three representative works of Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev. At times the QCSO is capable of greatness, and maybe it was a demanding conductor or the desire to match the soloist’s intensity and skill, but it has been a while since the symphony was in such fine form.

Beginning the evening, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major filled the air. Dubbed his “Classical” symphony, the First Symphony was intended as a tribute to Franz Joseph Haydn, the father of the modern symphony, but it is unmistakably Prokofiev and a brilliant work, with shining orchestration and catchy melodies. Though the QCSO is not known for its zippy playing, on this evening, it played marvelously, matching the sunny demeanor of the work.

The second piece took a turn into darker musical territory and showcased Prokofiev’s divergent abilities. While the first piece demonstrated his Neo-Classical skills, the Piano Concerto No. 2 employs a more avant-garde approach and challenges the orchestra and the soloist.

The performance featured the up-and-coming piano talent Gustavo Romero, a professor of piano at the University of Illinois who is earning a reputation as an astute interpreter of Frederic Chopin. And this piano concerto, though initially not widely liked, was the perfect showcase for Romero’s abilities. The complicated first movement, the blazing second movement, the atmospheric third section, and the summarizing final movement all demand a broad palette of tools and expressive capability. Romero shone at every opportunity, especially during the first movement’s humongous cadenza of unparalleled difficulty.

Not only was the audience hypnotized by his skill, the orchestra seemed to be in awe of what was unfolding on the Adler Theatre stage. Yet even though there were plenty of opportunities for the members of the orchestra to play over the soloist, the conductor kept them in check, adding to the give and take of the concerto.

But it wasn’t until the orchestra tackled Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony that it was most impressive. While the QCSO has a tendency to play flatly and sound lean, its performance last weekend was among the best I’ve heard.

The piece is probably the best example of the composer’s full range of harmonic, melodic, and compositional abilities, synthesizing the tightness of his Symphony No. 2, the grandness of his Symphony No. 1, and the melodic elements of his Third Piano Concerto. Moreover, the Third Symphony is one of Rachmaninoff’s most expressive outpourings, tinged with tragedy, melancholy, hope, and occasionally triumph.

And the performance was more than up to the work. The QCSO’s full playing and passionate interpretation delighted the audience. Alan Ohmes, the principal violinist, and Gerald Carey, principal flautist, owned the Adagio, and their luminous playing embraced the audience.

Though the QCSO is a capable orchestra, I am certain the above-average performance was in part due to Maestro Chen. A project of Boston legend Seji Ozawa (and new head of the Vienna State Opera), Chen is the former director of the Wichita Symphony and the founder and music director of the China National Symphony of Beijing. Though Chen is short in stature, his interpretation of the works of the evening towered over the audience.

An all-Russian concert is a gamble, especially when it doesn’t feature the reliable, audience-friendly Tchaikovsky. But the combination of Neo-Classical, prickly Modernism, and expressive Romantic works gave every listener something to take home. And Chen, Romero, and the QCSO set a performance quality bar that will not easily be surpassed. Audiences should hope for a figurative repeat for the remaining concerts of the season.
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