In the late 70s and 80s, it was fashionable to look down one’s nose at composers of lush and tuneful music such as Sergei Rachmaninov. Among the few places in the West that consistently – some might say “insistently” – featured all-Rachmaninov programs were the two Spoleto Festivals of Gian Carlo Menotti. Since that time, concert programmers have come around to concertgoers’ love of melody, and the composer’s works are more frequently scheduled, but whole concerts devoted to them are still rare, so one presented on February 13, in UNCG’s Aycock Auditorium, by the Moscow State Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, was a Siren call for us.

The highlight of the evening was a dynamic and trenchant performance of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, featuring pianist Yuri Rozum, who brought a perfect marriage of power-house technique and poetic sensitivity to the piece. Conductor Sergey Kondrashev elicited tight orchestral ensemble, allowing chamber-music-like give-and-take between the soloist and the section principals. A well-deserved standing ovation was rewarded with two solo encores: the stirring Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23/5, and a sweeping evocation of the sound of an orchestra in the Intermezzo from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker .

The sound of the orchestra was much improved when, at intermission, we moved from Row N, under the deep low overhanging balcony, to the open seating around row H. Aycock Auditorium is surely the weirdest concert hall we frequent in three states! Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 44, opened the concert. According to Michael Steinberg, writing in The Symphony , this score reflects the composer’s growing “talent for economy, concentration and precision” with “discourse… based on the play of figuration and texture as well as on the energy generated by the thrust of strong and sometimes arrestingly bold harmony.” Unfortunately, Kondrashev failed to maintain a taut and focused grip on the first movement, allowing it to sprawl and lose momentum, despite generally fine playing. The slow movement was beautifully judged, with good solos from many principals, including Concertmistress Nadezda Tokareva and the Principal Horn, whose opening solo featured much more vibrato than is common in the West. Subtle and soft brass playing were outstanding throughout the evening. Fielding only seven cellos and five double basses, the Moscow forces were not significantly richer sounding than the Greensboro Symphony or the NCS. The timpani was strangely inadequate, sounding like a dull rattle, not clearly focused. Hearing the orchestra from under the balcony overhang only made it sound thinner, without the rich sonorities heard during past visits from the Russian National Orchestra and the Bolshoi Symphony.

Bringing along a fifty-voice choir just to sing three short if pleasing Russian Songs for Orchestra, Op. 41, seemed quite extravagant. We hope they get their much-needed harvest of money to help sustain them under current conditions for the arts in Russia. “Over the River,” for male choir, begins slowly but becomes rather bracing; it allowed us to bask in the deep resonance of Russian basses. The women were featured in “Oh! You, Vanka!”; this was cushioned by rich strings and featured solos from the concertmistress, oboe, bassoon and clarinet. Both sexes united in the rhythmic and pulsing “Powder and Paint.” From downstairs, voices were well focused and together. Although the vocal categories were numerically balanced, the richness of the lower voices of both men and women made for a predominantly warm, plush sound.