October 7, 2019

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Opening Night

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
October 5, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

To open the SSO’s 76th season and his own 19th season as its music director, Kevin Rhodes notes in the program book, that he selected three pieces only because he “really wanted to play each one for an opening night.”

After a lively sing-along season-opening “Star-Spangled Banner,” the concert proper began with the Overture to Johann Strauss, Jr.’s famous operetta “Die Fledermaus,” named after a character who attends a costume party dressed as a bat. Orchestra and conductor played this appropriately festive opener with a uniquely Viennese effervescence that he likely absorbed from his frequent work in the Austrian capitol with the Vienna State Opera.

John Novacek
Making his second appearance with the SSO since 2016, American pianist John Novacek then gave a thrilling account of Rachmaninoff’s rarely performed first piano concerto. Written when the Russian composer was only 18 for his 1891 graduation from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the piece was soon overshadowed by his hugely popular second and third concertos. But Novacek’s powerful advocacy made a strong case for it, from the dramatic opening and emotional turmoil of the first movement, to the lyrical beauty of the second, and the “virtuosic-ally” impetuous finale. Rhodes and the SSO supported him with equal intensity and conviction.

Novacek rewarded the audience’s standing ovation with a delightful but knuckle-busting encore, his own “Intoxication” rag, which packed more notes into two minutes than even Rachmaninoff at his most demanding.

The program closed after intermission with what Rhodes called “an insanely beautiful work,” Czech composer Dvorak’s eighth symphony. Written in 1889, its four movements progress from a turbulent “Allegro con brio” through a quietly adventurous “Adagio” and a melancholy “Allegretto grazioso” to a jubilant closing “Allegro ma non troppo.” Under the maestro’s kinetic baton, the musicians delivered an exhilarating rendition of the colorful 36-minute score.

For this concert, the ever-innovating Rhodes swapped the locations on stage of the cellos and second violins, which were now at stage right, across from the first violins, and moved the bass section to the center rear, launching the new season with a rebalanced SSO sound.