Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

March 15, 2016

Stravinsky: The Firebird

Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA
March 12, 2016
by Michael J. Moran

In his invaluable “Rhodes’ Reflections” column in the program book, SSO Music Director Kevin Rhodes noted that “what unites this evening’s compositions [is] their differing connections to the ‘spiritual.’” The first was “The Last Sleep of the Virgin,” an orchestral interlude from Massenet’s 1878 oratorio “The Virgin” which, in Rhodes’ words, “depicts the Apostle Thomas coming to the tomb of Mary to say his last farewell.” The SSO’s performance was hushed and reverent.

Next came the evening’s main event, the world premiere of Kenneth Fuchs’ piano concerto, whose three movements he named after the paintings by Helen Frankenthaler which inspired them. Commissioned for multiple orchestras by soloist Jeffrey Biegel, the music is tonal, often jazzy, and easily accessible. In his own program notes, the composer describes the first movement, “Spiritualist,” as “playful in spirt,” the second, “Silent Wish,” as “introspective and reflective,” and the third, “Natural Answer,” as “buoyant and optimistic.”

The easy flow of Biegel’s virtuosic playing expressed both his obvious affection for the 21-minute piece and the importance of music in his life, after a piano stimulated his recovery of hearing and speech at age three. All sections of the orchestra also reveled in the score’s many opportunities for bright and subtle instrumental colors.

Two familiar ballet suites completed the program after intermission. Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” includes preparations for a wedding and quotes the Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts.” The passionate account by Rhodes and the SSO reinforced how pivotal this music written for modern dance pioneer Martha Graham in 1944 was in defining the open harmonies of Copland’s distinctively American sound.

Based on several Russian folk tales involving magic and the spirit world, Stravinsky’s “Firebird” was his breakthrough piece, the first of several ballets he would write for Serge Diaghilev’s Paris-based Ballets Russes. The full-bodied rendition by orchestra and conductor, from the mysterious, dark opening to the triumphant climax, again evoked how original this music must have sounded at its world premiere.

An appearance several days earlier at Bay Path University by Fuchs, Biegel, and Rhodes is exactly the kind of community outreach that many classical ensembles should be doing.