Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 3, 2011

Opening Night Gala

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
October 1, 2011
by Michael J. Moran

The Springfield Symphony Orchestra opened its 2011-2012 season with a program of three pieces by Russian composers, an “electrically charged…genre that has proven to be one of our strong suits” in the past, according to Music Director Kevin Rhodes in a program note.

After a rousing performance, with enthusiastic audience participation, of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to mark the start of a new season, the concert proper began with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Overture.” A colorful blend of Russian Orthodox chants with the composer’s exotic harmonies and orchestration, the piece made special demands on the brass and percussion sections, all of whom rose to the occasion with gusto.

The Tchaikovsky “Violin Concerto” reunited Rhodes and the SSO with soloist Axel Strauss for the first time since he played the Mendelssohn “Concerto in E minor” with them 11 years ago. In 1998, Strauss became the first German artist to win the Naumburg Violin Award. Now in his mid-30’s, he has lived in the United States since 1996 and teaches violin at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

While fully meeting its technical challenges, Strauss gave the Concerto a richly Romantic interpretation, drawing out the first movement cadenza to broad lyrical effect, along with the second movement Canzonett. The appreciative audience jumped to their feet after his thrilling rendition of the folk-inspired finale.

A brilliant performance of Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 5 in D minor” followed intermission. Rhodes reminded the audience that this 1937 piece was not an example of “art for art’s sake” but, in the composer’s words, “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism” of several of his earlier works by government authorities. With the entire orchestra playing marvelously in all four movements, the symphony’s links to the Russian historical tradition were also clear, especially in the intense Largo movement, which evoked the slow movements of Tchaikovsky’s fifth and Rachmaninoff’s second symphonies.

The Maestro’s famously kinetic style of conducting was on full display throughout the evening, and the positive energy of this opening night promised a great season ahead.