The Western Piedmont Symphony opened its 43rd Masterworks Season at First Baptist Church with a concert titled “Moscow Nights!”, featuring music of Russian composers. John Gordon Ross, beginning his 17th season with the orchestra as Music Director, conducted. The orchestra also welcomed the La Catrina String Quartet — Daniel Vega-Albela, Concertmaster, George Anthony Figueroa, Principal Second Violin, Jorge Martinez, Principal Viola, and Alan Daowz, Principal Cello — as its new quartet-in-residence.

Opening the program was “Baba Yaga,” Op. 56, by Anatol Liadov (1855-1914). As a composer, Liadov was less hard-working than he might have been. Indeed, Prokofiev described him as downright lazy. His tendency to procrastinate allowed Stravinsky to win the commission for the score of the Firebird ballet. “Baba Yaga” was completed in 1904, and is based on the story of the evil Russian witch, Baba Yaga, who crunches up children’s bones and flies through the air with her hut on bird’s legs. This short work brings out all of the orchestra’s resources — strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion — all of whom were very much up to the task.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was commissioned by Ida Rubinstein in 1927 to compose a new ballet for her dance company. The idea was that he should compose something inspired by the music of Tchaikovsky. He used only music that had not been orchestrated by Tchaikovsky, i.e. selections from his piano music and songs. For the subject of the story he used Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ice Maiden. Thus was born The Fairy’s Kiss. The ballet itself was not a success, and in 1934 Stravinsky created a concert suite, which he called “Divertimento,” the work played here, using about half of the music from the ballet. There are four movements, each more-or-less paralleling the ballet’s acts. While the music is Stravinsky’s own, Tchaikovsky’s themes are evident throughout. The orchestra played this rhythmically and thematically intricate music with deftness and clarity, bringing out the elegance and beauty of both Tchaikovsky’s and Stravinsky’s compositions.

The concert concluded with Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor for Piano and Orchestra by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840-93), featuring Michael Lewin as guest soloist. The concerto was written at the behest of Tchaikovsky’s mentor and friend, Nikolai Rubinstein (not to be confused with his professor, the composer Anton Rubinstein, the 20th century piano virtuoso, Artur Rubinstein, or the above-mentioned Ida Rubinstein), who was the director of the Moscow Conservatory. (If you see a somewhat tangled web being woven in all of this, you are correct!) Anyway, Rubinstein thought the concerto worthless and unplayable, and Tchaikovsky re-dedicated it to Hans von Bülow, who premiered the work in Boston in October, 1875. This concerto has become so popular that it is difficult to understand the early criticisms. It has, nonetheless, achieved a great deal of popularity, despite the fact that the piano writing is difficult, some of it is unnecessarily taxing, and it is at times partly obscured by the scoring.

Michael Lewin, the piano soloist, overcame most of these difficulties. This was Lewin’s fourth appearance with the Western Piedmont Symphony, and he continues to be a Hickory audience favorite. He enjoys a distinguished international reputation, and concertizes throughout the world. He also serves as Chair of Piano at The Boston Conservatory, where he teaches gifted students.

The concerto is, in many respects, an unconventional work, with a number of unconnected parts. Further analysis has demonstrated connections between the parts, and the themes in all three movements are based on songs: Ukrainian folk songs in the first and third movements, and a French cabaret song in the second.

This concerto never fails to bring down the house, and this performance was no exception. It requires virtuosity on the part of the soloist, the conductor, and all of the orchestra’s players. The audience expressed its delight and appreciation with multiple standing ovations.

It should be noted that the Western Piedmont Symphony sounded better tonight than I have heard in a number of years. The woodwinds, brasses, and the percussion are notably improved. Although the string sections would benefit from some augmentation, their playing is richer and fuller and more accurate than in recent seasons. I hope that this is not an anomaly, and that we can expect more of the same in performances to come.