Monday, April 26, 2010

Soul Music for the Ages

Soul Music for the Ages

By Tom Wachunas

In the final concert of this season’s Casual Friday chamber series at Cable Recital Hall on April 23, generously sponsored by Premier Bank and Trust, 18 members of the Canton Symphony Orchestra string section delivered what was unquestionably the season’s most emotionally accessible and appealing performance. This was largely due not only to the orchestra’s always remarkable technical and interpretive prowess, but also to the all-Russian program.

What is it about Russian Romantic-era orchestral music that so completely enthralls us? Call it an ineffable, yet somehow palpable – even universal – capacity to touch our souls. From the moment the violins made their achingly sweet, high-register entrance in the first selection - Alexander Borodin’s exquisite “Nocturne” (1881) - the tone was set for an evening that proved wistful, beguiling and otherwise thoroughly engaging on every level.

As is usually the case for these informal chamber presentations, the audience was treated to some expository “teaching” about the music being performed. For the second program selection – Anton Arensky’s “Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky”(1894) - conductor Matthew Brown even provided a posterboard enlargement (in bold red) showing the score’s opening nine-note theme that was woven throughout the composition. Conjuring shades of Leonard Bernstein’s Young Peoples Concerts of old, Brown’s banter was delightfully warm and humorous, reminding us at one point that Arensky was by no means a prolific composer, and that this work was perhaps evidence of the “one hit wonder” status often accorded him. After demonstrating snippets of each of the seven thematic variations (based on one of Tchaikovsky’s “Sixteen Children’s Songs”), the orchestra performed a vibrant reading of what indeed turned out to be a wonderful hit with the audience.

A particularly notable element throughout the entire evening was the subtly animated physicality of Brown’s conducting style. As if embracing the air around himself, he seemed to gather the music inward, mold and caress it, then release it back to the ever-responsive players in a symbiotic flow of give-and-take. Far from being a distraction, his ‘method’ is more a kind of guiding, even passionate choreography that enhances the experience of really hearing the music. And nowhere was this visually captivating punctuation of the musical dynamics more apparent than in the performance of the evening’s final work, Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings”.

This work, written in 1880, was a favorite of both composer and his audiences. Certainly it is among the Romantic era’s most beloved and resonant compositions (particularly the familiar second Valse movement), and an eminently appropriate finale for the concert. And once again the orchestra rose to the occasion of a masterwork with its own signature mastery of unified, sonorous tonality combined with lyrical fervor. Brown’s interpretation was impeccably attuned to the work’s flow of mood and cadence shifts, defined most noticeably in the second movement by quietly arrested passages followed by short, breathless rests. In all, from those sweet waltz hesitations, to the elegiac drama of the third movement, through the dance-like jubilance of the final movement, this was an invigorating and powerful translation of Tchaikovsky’s grandiloquent language of the human soul.

Photo, by Marantzer: St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow

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