Saturday, March 31, 2012

Russian Romantics

Those Russians, they knew how to write music!  Even with Tchaikovsky not considered one of the Mighty Five (his music was considered too "western" and not "Russian" enough) and Rachmaninoff living 50 years too late (his style was pure romantic when the musical tastes had moved on) an evening of Russian music is not to be missed.

Adding to the interest factor for the TSO concerts on March 24-25th was the debut of two young artists.  The first was conductor Nathan Brock, a native Torontonian and graduate of the University of Toronto.  Since 2009 he's been the Assistant Conductor for l'Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal.  He's conducted the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra in the debut last season of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but never the TSO.  As an added bonus on the 24th he was presented with the Heinz Unger Award by the Ontario Arts Council.  It's an award of $8000 given every two years to highlight the career of a young to mid-career Canadian conductor in memory of conductor Heinz Unger.

The second guest was cellist Joshua Roman.  He looks about 16, but is actually closer to 28 and has had a pretty impressive career thus far.  Before embarking on solo endeavours he spent two seasons as principal cello with the Seattle Symphony, a position that he won at 22 years old!  He also was the only person to play an unaccompanied solo in the YouTube Symphony Orchestra Carnegie Hall 2009 debut.

But back to the music.  The evening began at the beginning (*singing "a very good place to start"*, sorry couldn't resist) with a composer that is considered by many to be the first important one in Russia, Glinka's "Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila" (listen here).  An incredibly bouncy piece if ever there was one and a finger workout for the strings.  Doing a quick listen to some other versions on youtube I agree with the comment on this one that the tempo is just right.  Some of the others go way too fast.  The TSO's didn't feel rushed at all, so I'll guess it was more along these lines.  Mr. Brock didn't use a score and had some violent hand motions, but it can sound that way at times.

Catching his breath, Mr. Brock discussed the pieces, the history of the Russian composer and how he was glad to be debuting in Toronto.  Then attention was turned to Alexander Borodin's "Polovtzian Dance" written for the opera Prince Igor.  By far the most popular segment of this is what was given words in the musical Kismet to become "Strangers in Paradise", but the whole thing is a really quite beautiful especially the clarinet parts :)  Principal keyboardist Patricia Krueger said in an interview that she enjoys playing the triangle when she joins her percussion colleagues on the other side of the stage away from the piano, and indeed she played it with enthusiasm here.

Tchaikovsky appeared via "Variations on a Rococo Theme", with cello soloist.  I enjoy theme and variations pieces and this one seemed particularly fun in that the players seemed to be enjoying it.  In I believe the second variation there's an echo back and forth in the same styles between the solo cello and violins.  Mr. Roman played his part then glanced at the violins as if saying "ok, your turn.  Beat that."  Variations change mood though and it went from light hearted fun to more series and somber, which was also very convincing played.  It's also been used as ballet music to a work called Reflections by Gerald Arpino, check it out.

"Capriccio espagnol" by Rimsky-Korsakov opened the second half.  It was originally written as a violin concerto and remnants of opportunities for violinist showmanship still exist.  This piece had segments I recognized.  Oh to be able to play like the clarinetist at the beginning here.  But really I know parts of this because Torvill and Dean skated to it in a paso doble number.  Who knew that before that performance no one had thought of the girl representing the cape to the guys matador?

A vocalise is a song without words and Rachmanioff arranged his "Vocalise" as a real vocal version, for various instruments, and full orchestra.  Relaxing and beautiful, nothing else to say.

Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" was originally written for piano, complete with the Promenade theme between each segment to represent changing location in the gallery. That theme started the piece before we stopped to look at The Gnome, Dispute Between Children at Play, Polish Oxcart, Baba Yaga and The Great Gate of Kiev.  I've liked the Promenade ever since it showed up in my high school music book.  Principal trumpet Andrew McCandless joined for this piece and trombonist Gordon Wolfe switched to a baritone for parts as well, which I don't think I've ever seen before.  You never know what might happen at a TSO concert!


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