Slavic Music Comes to Denver with Mixed Results
Slava! A two week Slavic Music Festival began tonight with Peter Oundjian conducting the Colorado Symphony
Lise de la Salle on piano and Justin Bartels on Trumpet were featured in Shostakovich' Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet and Strings
Tonight was the opening concert of a two week Slavic Music Festival with the Colorado Symphony. With composers like Tchaikovsky, Shostakovic, Janáček and Rimsky-Korsakov the program was filled hard hitting, rich music with extensive use of brass. Much of the music is related to war and conflict, complete with fanfares and angular shifts in mood. It is powerful music stirring the emotions of the audience into a frenzy. These composers are real crowd pleasers and the audience was thrilled with every one.
The opening salvo was Tchaikovsky's March Slave, Op. 31, based on Serbian folk tunes and designed to encourage the Czar into war against Turkey. The familiar melody from God Save the Emperor, also used in the 1812 Overture had the low brass blaring away. The music is bombastic and Oundjian made sure it was over the top in that respect. It's a short piece but a great concert opener. The audience erupted with applause and even brought the conductor back for a second bow, rare for a concert opening piece.
Maestro Oundjian and the Colorado Symphony were joined for the next piece by Lise de la Salle on piano and Colorado Symphony's own Principal Trumpet Justin Bartels. Shostakovich' Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet and Strings is one of his more conservative works, but still gives lots of room for the pianist to shine. There are moments for the trumpet as well, but not as many - although some of these moments are difficult (like playing a low note with no preparation and sparse orchestration). For a young pianist (only 22), Ms de la Salle did well to demonstrate her skill on the piano. Shostakovich included typical Russian pounding of the keys, but also included soft whisper like moments which are extremely difficult to play each note evenly. Peter Oundjian guided the strings through a soft, supple passage leading into a trumpet moment creating a sense of both shadow and light in the music. The final movement provides a wonderful piano solo and then a brassy fanfare for the trumpet with the strings acting almost like percussion.
The Shostakovich has lots of wonderful moments, but seemed to lack clarity and drive. According to the program notes, one critic described the concerto as "conservative" and perhaps that would be a good way to describe the performance. The soloists were determined to make each note perfect while the conductor coaxed the orchestra through each movement to create a good performance -just not a great one.
The music of Leoš Janáček is hard to compare to any other composer. There are aspects of romantic music, but other moments where he leads the way into future generations of Slavic composers like Shostakovich. Janáček tends to be dense and richly layered, but also filled with tender, lyrical moments. Taras Bulba, Rhapsody for Orchestra is no exception. The theme is dark, based on a episodes from a novel by Nikolai Gogol, it tells the story of a brutal Cossack and his two sons.
What could have been the highlight of the evening was luke warm. The density of the music kept any particular theme from creeping out. The softer, more delicate moments were beautiful. Solos by Yumi Hwang-William on violin, Brook Ellen Schoenwald on Flute, Courtney Hershey Bress on Harp, Bil Jackson on Clarinet and Silver Ainomae on cello were wonderful. The quality of playing was certainly evident; yet somehow the music failed to emotionally charge the hall. The audience applauded the quality of playing, but stopped short of really being enthusiastic with the overall performance.
The final piece of the night was Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio espagnol, featuring Yumi Hwang-Williams on violin. Like the Tchaikovsky, this piece is a crowd pleaser; it's hard to go wrong. The music dances with Spanish rhythms, while capturing the richness of Rimsky-Korsakov's masterful orchestration --a great way to close out the night!
Had the entire concert had the same energy and vitality of the opening and closing numbers it would have been an exceptional concert. Unfortunately it sagged in the middle.