NSO’s Russian Riches

Well, hello folks.

It’s been quite sometime since we did any of this concert talk, something like six weeks, actually, and what an interesting six weeks it has been. It’s quite rare to go six weeks mid-season without a concert of any kind. The last one was Thomas Sanderling’s utterly breathtaking Beethoven 9.

But we’re back with the outstanding NSO for their first concert after the Chinese New Year, and as the title suggests, it’s all Russian. Two of them aren’t surprising, old standards of the concert hall, but the first piece on the program was new to me, and to Taiwan.

We had Gabriel Feltz conducting this evening, without any scores the whole way through. Now when you think Russian, there’s plenty of concert openers to start us off, but the surprise on the program this evening, and the Taiwan premiere, was Sofia Gubaidulina’s Märchen-Poem (Fairytale Poem). Everything after that was far more familiar. Next, we had Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto with the elegant, poised and stunningly talented Elisso Virsaladze, and after the break the program finished with Rachmaninoff’s first symphony, so overall an interesting lineup for an all-Russian program, I think.

First, Gubaidulina. I’ve seen the name around, I know who she is. She’s one of those people whose music I tell myself I should give a few listens to, but just never got around to it. Well, sometimes a live first experience is a good one, but tonight wasn’t, I don’t think. I wanted to like the piece before even having heard it, and I was ready to clap my little heart out for nothing else than support of programming something more obscure.

At least until I sat through it. I’m very much in favor of new works, of challenging programming, of being thrown a curve ball and all the rest, but I feel like this fairytale is one more suited to reading on a boring rainy day at home. It’s for a relatively small ensemble, and only a small portion of the ensemble is playing at any given time. The sounds themselves are interesting, sure, but overall, I didn’t get anything of the (admittedly very interesting) story of the life cycle of a small piece of chalk. In short, I’d say it’s too long for its own good. Episodic, sparse, texturally nice and interesting, but in a concert hall off 2400 unprepared listeners, it commanded more irritation than attention. Criticisms aside, I admired Feltz’s intensity for conducting it and the orchestra’s attentiveness in giving it a fair reading.

Applause was thankfully more fervent than I’d expected, and the pre-concerto shuffle began. Virsaladze came out and the work begins, with Feltz laying down a brisk pace for the first movement of such a familiar work, on which Virsaladze quickly put the brakes, and for the first little bit, they seemed to have a pretty public difference of opinion in how this was going to be presented, but by the middle of the movement, it seemed the tension had softened out to be intense and focused enough to create an interpretation with drive and purpose. The Tchaikovsky is one of those works that is clearly a crowd pleaser, and for obvious reasons. Tonight was at least the third time I’ve heard the piece in concert, but Virsaladze played with fire and focus, a spectacular performance.

After much applause, and a few walks back out to the piano, perhaps only two, she smiled and softly closed the lid over the keys, gave a small nod and walked offstage. The message was polite, but could not have been any clearer. Lights up.

During the intermission I think about how wonderful Virsaladze’s performance was, but in an unrelated thought, about how I’d probably be just fine never ever again hearing another Tchaikovsky 1 in concert for the rest of my days. It’s a big famous piece, sure, but I think I’ve gotten out of it all I need to get out of it.

After the break comes Rachmaninoff. The first symphony, that unfortunate pivotal point in the composer’s life, a premiere plagued by insufficient practice and a likely-sloshed conductor. Rachmaninoff left the premiere before the performance was even over and dealt with a long bout of depression that was only cleared away after the enormous success of his second piano concerto.

His first symphony, despite the poor first impression and negative sentiments, is really a remarkable work. It’s tightly constructed, with a few key motifs that give the work unity, which I’m a total sucker for. If the NSO sounded just a bit like it was indeed their first concert back from holiday for the first half of the program, then Feltz set the orchestra on fire and seared away any remaining dusty spots, because it was a roaring, big, intense reading of a work from such a famous composer, but a work that is often overlooked in favor of his piano concertos, etc. The pianist snuck into the audience a few sections over from me to enjoy the second half. I always love to see that. They’re people, too, you know, with glasses and purses and jackets.

I really enjoy the Rachmaninoff, so it was the work I was most looking forward to on the program. My fellow concertgoer most succinctly described it as “loud,” but I’d like to think there would be more good things to say about it with a second or third listen. Maybe it’s not the kind of work you can appreciate in one go, but this was certainly a hell of a go. Brass was searing hot, strings gave us the Romantic Rachmaninoff-esque swells you’d want, and the final conclusive gesture at the end (no spoilers) was heart-pounding.

It’s nice to see that it wasn’t all the same old stuff on the program, but we did get an impromptu Tchaikovsky 1 on a program last season with some shifting around of a program that Maestro Rozhdestvensky was unable to appear for.

I suppose perhaps something as crowd-pleasing as the Tchaikovsky might have been necessary to balance out the first work. I’d love to hear a Schnittke concerto grosso in concert, or his piano concerto, or the piano quintet, and there’s lots of Russian composers to feature, but tonight was all around a good program, and it’s the first in a string of concerts just about every week through to the end of March, with actually quite a bit of Russian stuff in among those works. Do stay tuned, and get in touch if you’ll be heading to any upcoming concerts (and know how to behave yourself in the concert hall). There’s good stuff coming up. See you soon, maybe.

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