Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

November 5, 2012

Electrifying Russian Music

Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA
November 3, 2012

by Michael J. Moran

“I never need much of an excuse to do an entire Russian program,” SSO Music Director Kevin Rhodes recently told the Springfield Republican. For the second classical concert of its current season he led the orchestra in three pieces which reflect the wide range of emotion and orchestral color of Russian music in performances which fully delivered on the “electrifying” promise of the program title.

The program opened with Overture to Borodin’s opera “Prince Igor.” Left unfinished at the composer’s death in 1887, it was completed by his colleague Glazunov from sketches and a memory of Borodin’s performance of it on the piano. Its mix of Russian nationalism with exotic suggestions of the opera’s Central Asian setting was deftly captured in an exuberant account that featured strong, cutting brass and warm, lush strings.

Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 reunited Rhodes with his undergraduate piano teacher Ralph Votapek, who won the gold medal at the first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition 50 years ago playing the same concerto. His long experience with this 1921 piece, written mostly in Brittany and premiered in Chicago with the composer as soloist, and his obvious comfort with his former student yielded a performance of both dazzling virtuosity and relaxed lyricism. At age 73, Votapek’s manual dexterity is exceeded only by his interpretive maturity, and the large audience rewarded his efforts with a standing ovation.

Intermission was followed by an exhilarating rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, nicknamed the “Little Russian” symphony because it quotes three Ukrainian folk tunes. Less familiar than the composer’s last three symphonies, its mostly original melodies also sound more folk-like than any of his other works. The opening motif was beautifully shaped by principal horn Laura Klock, and woodwind and percussion players were prominently featured throughout the program. Principal Christopher Cullen gave ravishing voice to the solo clarinet melody that opens the Prokofiev, whose staccato quality was even enhanced by castanets.

The maestro threw himself into his conducting duties with typical abandon all evening, and the orchestra responded with playing of impressive polish and passion.