The Arts, Etc.

Springfield Symphony Orchestra

Donizetti, Rachmaninoff & Brahms

Kevin Rhodes, Music Director and Conductor
Alexander Ghindin, Piano

66th Season, 2009-2010
Saturday, January 23, 2010

Review by Donna Bailey-Thompson

Pre-concert talk

Anticipation of an exciting and melodic evening filled the lobby with music lovers waiting for the doors to open for the pre-concert talk. When Maestro Kevin Rhodes walked onto the stage (to warm applause), he was in synch with the audience's expectations of being "wrapped in the bosom of romantic 19th century virtuosity." Rachmaninoff's virtuosity is obvious whereas "Brahms is not necessarily associated with virtuosity because his is compositional virtuosity. He gets inside the notes." Rhodes mentioned that some speculate Brahms composed his Symphony No. 2 based upon its first four notes. (From other pre-concert talks, we've learned that Tchaikovsky was also a four-note composer.) Rhodes spoke of Brahms' tricky ability to take those four notes and turn them upside down. Right side up, the four notes are reminiscent of Stephen Foster's Beautiful Dreamer - but only as far as Beautiful Dream: the "er" torpedoes the idea that Foster borrowed from Brahms.

More is known about nineteen-year-old Rachmaninoff's inspiration for his, truly, first piano concerto. Rhodes told the audience (the orchestra seats were almost full) that the model young Sergei chose was Grieg's only concerto. Good choice!

About the opening selection, Italian born Donizetti's Roberto Devereau Overture, Rhodes described the "incredibly inventive" composer as creating 19th century jazz via Germany and Austria. Inspiration for the opera came from the historical bodice-ripping intrigue within the Court of Elizabeth I and her affair with Robert, Earl of Essex, who was executed. In the 1939 movie, Bette Davis and Errol Flynn starred. Rhodes mentioned that Beverly Sills said that she "loved doing this opera because I'm Bette Davis in high notes."

The concert

With three loud, sharp full orchestra chords, Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) overture seizes the audience's attention followed by a variation of what we know as My Country, Tis of Thee/God Save the Queen. At times the familiar tune labored at dirge speed, at others it minced like a Mozart minuet. Eventually the music foretold the churning drama within the opera. The tempo quickened, the turmoil mounted, and so did the volume. As Conductor Rhodes' arms urged the musicians to ever increasing fortissimo, he was, like the Hokey Pokey says, putting his whole self in, and so was the orchestra. He was the picture of a man who loves what he's doing.

As Rhodes and guest pianist Alexander Ghindin approached center stage, Rhodes in tails and Ghindin in a tailored tunic, I wondered what level of music would this duo generate and would Ghindin live up to the hype? The short answers: Music: Enveloping. Hype: Richly deserved.

From the beginning and throughout Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 1, in F-Sharp minor, the orchestra glistened or carried emotions to the next level while the pianist created one sand painting after another, letting grains glide through his fingers. Rhodes was in charge throughout - the focused conductor and the supportive host. Similarly, Ghindin was in charge of his domain, confident, in tune with his instrument. His ripplings were crystal clear - every note, regardless of speed. The clarity of his playing was refreshing, from pianissimo to fortissimo, embracing, but never artificially sentimental. His technique was astounding: his music flowed, galloped, meandered appropriately like a stream, always in control, disciplined but suitably expressive. He covered the keyboard, sweeping forays to pluck a chord or begin a glissando. The electrifying finale suggested that Grieg's influence was very much alive. Whether ferocious or retiring, there was nothing watery or muddied about Ghindin's notes. His deportment did not distract from the fine music freed by his fingers. His playing complemented Rachmaninoff's score.

Brahms' Symphony No. 2, in D Major opening is quiet, serene. The "beautiful dream-er" notes are easy to recognize. At one point, Rhodes elicited the sound he wanted by cajoling the musicians, almost literally pulling the properly modulated music out of them. By the third movement, my notes included phrases of "Galloping horses; who will win? Neither." The program notes state that at the symphony's 1877 premiere in Vienna, "the ebullient third movement had to be repeated at the insistence of the enthusiastic audience." I wonder if anything like that has ever happened in this country.

The final movement gathered and released more and more excitement, ending on a high. The audience stood. Shouts of "Bravo!" rang out. Rhodes and the SSO had performed well, they had given the audience a respite from whatever they needed a respite from and done so beautifully.

Overheard, an enthusiastic concertgoer stating, "They're better than the Boston Symphony!"

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