Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Symphony Preview: From Russia with love

Conductor Han-Na Chang
Photo: Sheila Rock, EMI Classics
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It's all Russia all the time at Powell Hall this weekend (November 4 and 5, 2016) as guest conductor Han-Na Chang makes her St. Louis Symphony debut with a program of music by three of the biggest names in Russian music of the 19th and early 20th centuries: Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Mikhail Glinka.

OK, Glinka may not have the immediate name recognition of the first two, but in his day (the first half of the 19th century) he was a major force in Russian music. Indeed, as Paul Schiavo writes in his program notes, Glinka "was Russia's first significant composer of opera and concert music and the first to impart a discernibly Russian character to his work. As such, he stood as spiritual father to Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Tchaikovsky: all composers who gave Russian music a distinctive identity during the second half of the 19th century." He's widely regarded as the intellectual father of the "Mighty Handful" (a.k.a. the "Russian Five") of composers who were so important in the formation of the Russian nationalist school: Mily Balakirev (whose Islamey was on last week's program), César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin.

Mikhail Glinka in the 1840s
Portrail by Yanenko
Glinka's music, unfortunately, is rarely heard these days. The most notable exception is the piece that opens this weekend's concerts, the overture from his 1842 fairy tale opera Ruslan and Lyudmila. The opera itself hasn't gotten much traction outside of Russia but the overture is one of those pieces that used to crop up often as "filler" on classical LPs—a function it still serves on classical radio stations today. Its alluring melodies and neat little solo tympani part are irresistible.

Up next is Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, op. 19, composed in 1917 but, because of the Russian revolution, not actually performed until 1923 when Serge Koussevitzky conducted the premiere in Paris. It wasn't particularly well received—Paris audiences were more in the mood for Stravinsky's Octet for Wind Instruments, which premiered at around the same time—but a performance of a piano/violin reduction of the concerto in Moscow a few days later was a hit.

The fact that the violinist was Nathan Milstein and the pianist Vladimir Horowitz might have had something to do with that, of course.

The concerto didn't really begin to get widespread attention, though, until Joseph Szigeti performed it in Prague in 1924. "That incomparable Hungarian artist subsequently carried it all over Europe and America," writes Michael Steinberg in program notes for the San Francisco Symphony, "was the first violinist to play it with orchestra in the Soviet Union, and was politely persistent with English Columbia executives until they allowed him to make the first recording of it with Sir Thomas Beecham in 1935."

Prokofiev in New York, 1918
Photo by Bain News Service
One reason the concerto had trouble finding an immediate audience might have been the fact that it was a significant departure from the sarcastic and savage music that had first brought Prokofiev fame. Coming after wild and wooly works like the ballet The Buffoon and the Scythian Suite (which got such an electrifying performance by the SLSO back in 2012) it's overall lyricism probably felt a bit tame.

That doesn't mean that the work isn't difficult to play, though. The first movement starts out marked sognando (literally "dreaming") with the soloist playing softly over tremolo strings, but the music soon becomes agitated, with virtuoso passages using double stops. The second movement kicks the difficulty up to a whole new level with, as Peter Laki writes in program notes for the National Symphony Orchestra, "a combination of relentless rhythmic ostinatos (repeated figures), spicy harmonies, and a level of technical difficulty bordering on the impossible." And at the end of the final movement, Prokofiev has the soloist playing a chain of trills that moves higher and higher to the very top of the instrument's range, where playing in tune becomes increasingly more difficult.

Taking on the challenge of this music this weekend will be the young Czech violinist Jan Mrácek. Something of a prodigy, Mr. Mrácek began studying the violin at the age of five. In 2010 he was named the youngest laureate of the Prague Spring International Festival competition and in 2011 he became the youngest soloist in the history of the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra. Since then he has appeared with orchestras all over the world. Like Ms. Chang, he is also making his first appearance with the SLSO.

The concerts conclude with one of Pete Tchaikovsky's Greatest Hits, the Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64, from 1888. Like the symphonies that bracket it, the fifth deals with the composer's obsession with fate and his attempt to find happiness despite the stress of being gay in Czarist Russia. If you need evidence of the pernicious effects of criminalizing sexual orientation, you need look no further than the pain and torment of Tchaikovsky's life.

Tchaikovsky portrait by Nikolai Kuznetsov
Somewhat surprisingly (in light of its enduring popularity), Tchaikovsky began the symphony at a time when he thought he might be played out. "Have I written myself out?" he asked in an April 1888 letter to his brother Modest. "No ideas? No inclination? Still, I am hoping to collect materials for a symphony." He continued to question himself after the lukewarm critical reception of the piece at its November 17th, 1888, premiere in St. Petersburg (due, in part, to the composer's poor performance as a conductor). Audiences and musicians, however loved it—not only in St. Petersburg but later in Prague and Hamburg as well. Time, in any event, would vindicate him (if not necessarily during his lifetime).

"There's a monumental, an epic quality to this symphony," observed symphony Principal Horn Roger Kaza in the program notes for the SLSO's last performance of this piece in 2014, "as with all of Tchaikovsky's late symphonies, although I find this one less tragic and fatalistic than the Fourth or Sixth. The Fifth is more exuberant throughout, and it contains absolutely brilliant strokes of genius." In an essay for the 1966 Penguin collection The Symphony, the Austrian-born British music writer Hans Keller goes so far as to suggest that the Fifth "may be the most consistently outstanding" of all Tchaikovsky's symphonies in the way that the orchestration "offers original sounds at every change of texture. If this is not generally recognized, it is only because all these sonorities seem as natural and necessary as the hills."

The essentials: Han-Na Chang conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with violin soloist Jan Mrácek in Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture, Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1, and Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., November 4 and 5, at Powell Hall in Grand Center. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

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