An evening of Russian music

What would you offer if you were asked to program an evening of Russian music for your symphony orchestra? Oh, and the major task is to fill your concert hall. Well, Russian music is a pretty good drawcard anywhere, so you would look for the stand-out pieces. The standard concert structure is an overture, a concerto and a symphony, but of course you could vary that.

I came up with two quite different imaginary evenings, without much effort. The first started with Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture, followed by Shostakovitch’s 2nd Piano Concerto, with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade as the second half.  The second started with Tchaikovsky, with the 1812 Overture or Capriccio Italien or Romeo and Juliet (take your pick), followed by Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto, followed by Borodin’s 2nd Symphony. Russian music is such a rich field.

The Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s Russian night, supported by the Embassy of the Russian Federation (because this is Canberra’s Centenary Year), was a knock-out: Shostakovitch’s Festive Overture, Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto, and then Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, in Ravel’s orchestration. And it did the crowd-pulling job. Every seat in Llewellyn Hall had been bought.

This time I had two grandchildren, my grand-daughter searching for the harp which had been in front of her at the last concert. No harp! Maybe it’ll come later, I said, trying to remember the orchestration of the Mussorgsky. I had explained that overtures were to get everyone used to the music, and to warm up the orchestra, and the Shostakovitch did both very well. He wrote it in a few days at the request of the conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre, and it has something of the flavour of the Glinka overture I had in mind for my first imaginary concert.

The Rachmaninov 2nd might well be the most popular piano concerto currently being played, and we had a good view of the pianist, Konstantin Shamray (whose presence was presumably the Russian Embassy’s contribution). Shamray won the Sydney International Piano Competition in 2008, taking out both the First Prize and the People’s Choice, and a stack of other awards as well. I must have been at other performances of this work, but never in this position, and what struck me was how fiendishly difficult the work is to play. More, how the noise the piano generates must make it hard sometimes for the pianist to hear the orchestra, for there was a good deal of interaction throughout the work between Nicholas Milton, the conductor, and Shamray.

The concerto was a first for both kids, and their attention wandered off from time to time. But it returned at once when Shamray, responding to much applause and standing ovations from a large part of the audience, provided an encore, a little Etude Tableau also from Rachmaninov, called ‘Red Riding Hood’ — a delicious (and difficult) picture both of the wolf and the girl. Rachmaninov was known in his world as ‘the six-foot scowl’, but there was no scowling in this enjoyable morsel.

Having learned from last time that sleep might overtake my charges in the second half, I provided them with a little chocolate at interval, and it kept them wide awake during the Mussorgsky — and the harp was back! The notion of a musical account of painting after painting, interspersed with a musical promenade, was ingenious, and Mussorgsky thought of it first. The pictures are beautifully done, and you don’t really need to know what they were, or who painted them, or the whole story. The music speaks for itself. And the orchestra was in grand form, the various soloists giving exemplary accounts of their contributions.

The kids quickly recognised the promenade, and were picked up by the great and almost thunderous conclusion, in which every member of the orchestra was flat out making music save Sue Powell, the celeste player, directly in front of us, her hands still. It was a great conclusion to a great evening, and one which will have greatly helped the orchestra’s bottom line, at a time when orchestras around the world are in dire financial trouble. We sang the promenade in the car going home.

There have been some noises off about the popularity of what the CSO is offering this year. And I have some sympathy for those who would like to hear more challenging programs. For my part, I would help the CSO sell tickets if they put on Bruckner’s 7th, rounding up everyone I knew to say that this was not to be missed. But the awful truth is that live performances don’t draw the crowds unless there is a star, like Callas, or Yo Yo Ma — Shamray is a star in the making — or the offering is a certain crowd-puller.

Rach 2 and Pictures at an Exhibition are crowd-pullers, and for good reason. Each of them is utterly memorable, the piano concerto for its fabulous melodies and inventive harmonies more than for its acrobatic pianistic demands, the Mussorgsky for its march-like promenade (at different tempi) and its variety of  musical pictures. Yes, both are utterly mainstream. But orchestras have to survive, or we won’t hear anything live (no rhyme intended). And for the next few years there’ll be not much use in appealing to government. That larder is bare.

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