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Orchestral Music Review

Asheville Symphony Orchestra: A Russian Feast Indeed

May 10, 2008 - Asheville, NC:

When Conductor Daniel Meyer assumed the position of director of the Asheville Symphony, the May concert, the closer for the season, became the vehicle for some interesting and experimental collaborations. Last May’s concert featured a performance of Holst’s The Planets with celestial projections onto a screen. Furthering his vision this year was this seventh masterworks event, billed as “a Russian Feast,” which combined the talents of the orchestra with two guests, pianist Konstantin Soukhovetski and the Red Herring Puppets designed and directed by Lisa Sturz. The buzz about including mammoth 8-10-foot puppets in a symphonic performance of Stravinsky’s Pétrouchka was all over town, and the large turnout was a testament to the conductor’s successful efforts to engage and expand the orchestra’s audience base.

The program opened with the famous Polonaise from the final act of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, grand party music played with exuberance and joy. The stage was packed with the musicians crowded to the front of the stage along with the piano front and center, the rear space having been reserved for the puppets after intermission. Though appearing to be on top of one another, the orchestra performed this much-beloved piece with ease and abandon.

Second on the program was the massive Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor. Guest artist Konstantin Soukhovetski studied at the Moscow Central Special Music School before entering the U.S. in 1999. He earned both BM and MM degrees (and the Arthur Rubinstein Prize) from The Julliard School, and is a rising international star with recent appearances in the U.S., Puerto Rico, and the Middle East.

Composed in 1912-13 while Prokofiev was a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, this iconoclastic work was dedicated to his dear friend, Maksimilian Shmitgoff who had committed suicide. The composer performed the solo part in its premiere on September 5, 1913 in Pavlovsk. The reception was mixed, with a faction of the audience overtly distressed (“The devil take this Futuristic music! We want to hear something pleasant! We can hear music like this from our cats at home.”), while others jubilantly praised its originality. The work remains one of the most formidable technical challenges in the repertory. Symphonic in scope and form (four movements in length), the concerto opens with quiet and wistful thematic material in the piano presented in octaves, which gives way to the forceful and disjointed second theme in the allegretto. The bulk of the movement is devoted to the titanic cadenza which, when heard, is much like watching a play within a play. The orchestra’s function has been entirely usurped by the piano, which rages in Lisztian style over every square inch of the keyboard by leaps and bounds and furious runs. Soukhovetski’s palette of “orchestral” colors was fully utilized in service to Prokofiev’s fierce declamatory style. Toward the end the orchestra, silent for much of the time as though stunned, reawakens to conclude the movement.

The second movement Scherzo (vivace), though short, continues to pour on the heat with the pianist’s fingers a literal blur of ripping passagework. The third movement Intermezzo (still an allegro, though moderato) has some of the most colorful music, alternating in character between a march and a weighted (pesante), lumbering bear dance. The pianist’s hands cross and uncross repeatedly and later execute rippling glissandi passages. The first movement’s angular themes are mimicked in the fourth movement, an allegro tempestoso, where extremes in the piano’s registers are once again relentlessly explored. Here again, the orchestra is tacit for extended passages while the soloist introduces the quieter mood of the second theme and later plays another cadenza. Unfortunately, by this time the piano showed it had been no match for the player, as several strings had been broken and its tuning blown. Despite this, the performance was a revelation of style and nuance. Rarely does one have the opportunity to hear this fearsome work performed live, and by such a young and prodigiously talented artist. The audience immediately leapt to its feet in a noisy show of approbation.

After intermission, the rear of the stage was fitted with a large screen for the collaborative performance of Stravinsky’s Pétrouchka with the Red Herring Puppets. The work of puppetmaster Lisa Sturz has been seen in a variety of venues — film, television, stage, and school — and now with a symphony orchestra. Of course, when Stravinsky composed the work in 1911 (revised in 1947), he was crafting a ballet score, one of three for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. When the work premiered in Paris on June 13, 1911, Nijinsky danced the title role of the pathetic, love-struck puppet.

Converting a ballet into a puppet show for giant figures presented its spatial and artistic challenges, and while the three puppets (Moor, Ballerina, and Pétrouchka) executed some ballet-like maneuvers, the impact of their presence was more like that of a tableau vivant, adding color, personality, and a “living” presence. Projections on the screen included shadow figures of a conductor, a flute-playing Wizard, images of animals and the 3 puppets themselves to help tell the story. There were puzzling long gaps where no puppets were present, and I was left wondering whether portions of the choreography had been scuttled due to the lack of rehearsal time. The “invisible” ballet was the remarkable choreography of the several puppeteers manipulating each figure, and we witnessed several of them as they brought the wounded Pétrouchka out to stage front to expire. The orchestra performed this difficult score admirably, although I felt there were sections of it that were under tempo.

What an evening! I admire the boldness driving Meyer’s artistic decisions, and eagerly await next season’s concerts.