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Orchestral Music Review Print

Powerful Brahms and Orchestral Fireworks on July 4 at Eastern Music Festival

July 4, 2009 - Greensboro, NC:

This official “Opening” of the 2009 Eastern Music Festival was a great success, presenting the first-rate Eastern Festival Orchestra, world class performers in Peter Serkin and conductor Gerard Schwarz, and a beguiling and thrilling program. Pairing the eccentric brilliance of Rimsky-Korsakoff with the other-worldly opulence of Scriabin, the concert took root and found wings in Johannes Brahms’ First Piano Concerto. Although not a word was mentioned about Independence Day from the stage of Dana Auditorium on the peaceful campus of Guilford College, the nature of the music “spoke” clearly about the pioneer spirit, innovation, visionary longings and the expression of profound introspection. This tops any show of pyrotechnics, for me, at least... and for the full house at Dana, too!

Although a naval officer by trade, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakoff is most revered as a brilliant orchestrator and the Russian Easter Overture, Op. 36, is a stellar example of his gift for color. Starting with dark foreboding, the overture is a virtual catalogue of colors and moods. From the solemn intoning of old Russian Orthodox chants by trombonist Mike Kris, to shimmering woodwinds backing virtuosic arpeggios by concertmaster Jeffry Multer to the pagan eruption of festivities by the full orchestra, this piece packs it in – and the strings filled the hall with waves of brilliant sound.

The seldom played “Poem of Ecstasy,” Op. 54, is an impressionistic tour de force by the mysterious and enigmatic Russian composer, Alexander Scriabin. Scriabin was a brilliant pianist and a classmate of Rachmaninoff, the only pianist who out-scored him in the piano exams at the Moscow Conservatory. He was also immersed in some of the spiritualist movements of the turn of the century and dabbled in synesthesia (his “Prometheus; Poem of Fire” has an elaborate color projection scheme, played on a “color organ”).  He spent a couple of years writing first a lengthy poem about the “spirit” and originally called “Orgiastic Poem” which can be summed up in the lines of the second stanza – “Spirit creating all with a dream/ Surrenders to the bliss of love."

The musical version, sometimes called his Fourth Symphony, follows the poem in title and spirit, but not at all literally. It is in one movement, with a prologue, a sonata form and triumphant conclusion. Scriabin writes well for orchestra and the work is colorful. The principal trumpet, an allegorical symbol for the “Will to Create” has many long and high solos and was played in a memorable fashion by Mark Neiman. Prof. Greg Carroll, in his delightful and witty preconcert talk in the Moon Room below Dana Auditorium, referred to Scriabin as a sort of “Debussy, high on drugs,” and to judge by the three overpowering climaxes in the performance, I would suggest some sort of spiritual Viagra as well. In addition to leading the work masterfully, Maestro Schwarz is to be thanked for introducing the work to the region.

I sense a close affinity between Brahms’ monumental D minor Piano Concerto, Op. 15, and the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in the same key. Both start in another key – Brahms in B flat and Beethoven in A; both have a principal first theme that outlines chord tones and both use a pedal point (often in first inversion) at important climactic moments.

There is another affinity I would like to propose: the quest to unify the entire piece by using recurrent elements. In the Beethoven, it is the harmonic importance of the key of B-flat in each movement; in the Brahms, it is the resemblance of the themes of the movements. The second theme of the first movement of the Concerto in D minor is the basis for most of the themes of the Rondo. And more arcane, the thematic material of the second movement, Adagio, is drawn from the first theme of the first movement of the concerto.

Peter Serkin is now well-established as one of the leading American pianists and possesses an eclectic and far-reaching repertory. Tall and lanky, he enters the stage with a Fonda-esque walk and modest mien. As the magnificent exposition of Brahms’ first movement reaches its climax, Serkin seems to grow even taller on his bench as he prepares for his soft entrance. Indeed, if I had to tell you what impressed me the most, it was these softer, tender and sometimes bitter-sweet passages which he played so musically and expressively! Even so, the powerful main theme of the first movement with its trills was thrilling, even if the orchestra had a tendency to drown out the piano. Perhaps because the extra string doubling of the opening theme was so powerful and placed the whole movement on a different plateau, it created a level of volume the piano couldn’t match.

Bravo, William Trotter, for witty and entertaining program notes and the extra notes of personal perspective they add to our understanding of the programs and the milieu in which music is made.