Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 22, 2018

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, All Rachmaninoff

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
May 19, 2018
by Michael J. Moran

For the final concert of the SSO’s 74th season and his own 17th as their music director, Kevin Rhodes notes in the program book, he celebrated “one of my favorite composers” with five pieces by Rachmaninoff. But Rhodes’ selections were unusual in that they all date from late in the composer’s career, only one of them is a repertory staple, and three of them are almost totally unfamiliar to the average concertgoer.

Those would be the 1929 orchestral arrangements by Italian composer Respighi of three “Etudes-Tableaux” (pictorial studies), originally written between 1911 and 1917 for solo piano, which opened this imaginative program. The composer suggested their titles to Respighi (“The Fair,” “Little Red Ridinghood and the Wolf,” and “March”), whose three years of study in Russia with Rimsky-Korsakov are reflected in the dark Slavic color of these orchestrations. Rhodes and the SSO performed them with conviction and flair.

Misha Dichter
Next came the only piece on the program that many audience members would recognize, the composer’s last work for piano and orchestra, dating from 1934, his “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” The featured soloist was, in Rhodes’ words, “one of the grand gentlemen of the piano,” Misha Dichter. Now 72, the American pianist has lost none of the technical facility and interpretive depth which launched his international career over 50 years ago. His nimble fingers captured all the thunder of variations 13 and 22 and romantic lyricism of variation 18. Orchestra and conductor offered equally agile support.

Intermission was followed by a vibrant account of Rachmaninoff’s last work, and, according to Rhodes, “[his] masterpiece,” the 1940 Symphonic Dances, written three years before the composer’s death. While its three movements recall and even quote several of his earlier works, they also introduce new instrumental harmonies which make this the most modern-sounding of all Rachmaninoff’s works. Its mix of nostalgia and defiance was expertly rendered by all the musicians, including a first movement saxophone solo, meltingly played by principal Lynn Klock (Rachmaninoff’s only use of that instrument).

Season 75 will be hard put to match this insightful new slant on a beloved composer.