Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, Prokofiev: Dror Biran (piano), University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music’s Philharmonia Orchestra, Mark Gibson (Conductor), Corbett Auditorium, Cincinnati, OH. October 4, 2019.
The CCM Philharmonia returned in fine form two weeks after its opening concert on September 20th with an all-Russian concert featuring the Israeli pianist Dror Biran as soloist in the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major by Dimitri Shostakovich.
Overtures belong at the beginning of concerts, I know, but once in a while it would be nice to liven up the ending of an all-Russian concert in which the line between happy and sad is so often blurry, with a rousing rendition of Rimsky Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture. That happened to be the opener of this complex concert that mixed sorrow and joy in equal parts, with students playing like professionals and a great conductor at the helm.
Maestro Gibson ceded the podium to a gifted conducting student, the young Madeline Tsai who vigorously conducted the orchestra in the quintessentially Slavic Russian Easter Overture.
One would not expect a lively composition in an upbeat tempo and in a major key to be the product of the chain-smoking, hard drinking, perennially moody, partially crippled, thrice unhappily married, politically victimized Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich. But wonder of wonders here’s the jolly Bb major concerto that the older Shostakovich wrote for his son Maxim.
It has a bouncy opening Allegro that will keep your toes tapping, which is then followed by a decidedly sentimental second movement, which then seamlessly links up to yet another straight-ahead allegro that could have been conceived by Khachaturian or Kabalevsky on steroids. But no, this is just Shostakovich on a good day.
The whole thing lasts under 18 minutes, each one of which calls for heavy lifting from everyone involved. The piano part is virtuosic and percussive, the percussion section is put on red alert, the woodwinds are led by a hyperactive flute (here the very fine Youbeen Cho), the conductor – the protean Mark Gibson – as agile as you can imagine tapped into the music’s sheer joy and its slightly demonic undercurrents, and pianist Dror Biran gave it a technically dazzling, superbly sardonic rendition with whatever the Russian equivalent of joie de vivre might be.
Joy though is not what Sergei Prokofiev had in mind as war raged in 1944 and artillery fire was heard just outside the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory with the composer himself leading the USSR Symphony Orchestra in the premiere of his Fifth Symphony. Over a dozen years had elapsed since the composer had premiered his fourth symphony, and political circumstances and practicality had made it more viable for Prokofiev to focus on smaller-scale works than on larger orchestral works, what with so many players in the front.
And still, with the Fifth Symphony Prokofiev wrote expansively, not for a moment subservient to Soviet-approved compositional rules. The work is as loosely polytonal and as harmonically uncertain as the fate of Russia at the time. Classically structured in four movements: a stately opening Andante, a frantic Scherzo in the tempo of a Hopak that interrupts itself with short sections played by the oboe and clarinet at a slower tempo, then a broad and moody Adagio with lovely writing for the woodwinds, and finally an Allegro giocoso with more mordant bite than joy in its jagged contours.
Mark Gibson and his young musicians gave the Prokofiev work a heartily muscular and impassioned reading not slighting the music’s important lyrical moments.
Next up, Gibson’s orchestra gets spooky with a horrifying (that’s a compliment) Halloween concert on Friday November 1st featuring Liszt’s Dance of Death as its centerpiece.
Rafael de Acha http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com