russian triptych

Elina Vähälä

The rehearsal period for our first classical series concerts has finished, and Saturday night we play our first of three concerts here at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (click here for tickets). It’s an all-Russian program (which can often feel like an all-rushin’ program, with all of the fast passagework that such repertoire often entails), but rather than being a one-size-fits-all sort of ‘Russian’ program, it neatly highlights the work of three very different composers: Glinka, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff.

Glinka’s Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla is a sparkling showpiece for full orchestra. While all sections of the orchestra get their due (including the timpani), it is the string section that does much of the heavy lifting in this fantastically propulsive piece of music. The scoring is quite light and transparent – compare it to Tchaikovsky’s Overture-Fantasy on Romeo & Juliet, and you’ll notice the difference right away. It’s a good piece in which scan the string sections for signs of smoke from overly enthusiastic bowing. Bring those opera glasses!

Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 is a welcome piece for two reasons. First of all, it’s got the most gorgeous slow movement of any violin concerto written in the 20th century. Second, Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä has returned to perform it with us. Listening to this concerto is almost like seeing the fMRI scan of a schizophrenic’s brain. A beautiful melody is interrupted by sul ponticello scraping, an elegant waltz is rendered with four extra beats, the bass section moans and groans, the violas wail, and the trumpet heckles from the sidelines. It’s the sort of piece that demands the utmost of both soloist and orchestra. They both need to be able to change moods and styles on a dime. Luckily, both we and Ms. Vahala are up to the challenge (sorry, the umlauts got too tiring to type). I’m more amazed than ever that Elina does not have a more major career than she has at this point. It just goes to show how many fantastically talented violinists are out concertizing these days. She’s a beautiful, elegant player, but not a shrinking violet by any means – she can dig in with the best of them, but I’ve yet to ever hear her make a less than beautiful sound on her 1678 Strad. I’m glad that we’re able to keep re-engaging her in such great repertoire. I only hope that the next time she comes here she’ll play either the Sibelius or the Lindberg concerto!

Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 is a huge, sprawling piece – especially when played without cuts, as the orchestra is doing this weekend (though we do omit the first movement exposition repeat). It is my first time playing the full version of the piece, as James DePriest always used his performing edition with substantial cuts in several of the movements. Though it was completed in 1908, it firmly belongs to the 19th century aesthetic. It’s hard to believe that this work was premiered eight months before Mahler’s Seventh! This is a balls-to-the-wall Romantic symphony, nearly 55 minutes in length. Lush string writing dominates the texture, though there are many brilliant passages utilizing the woodwinds and brass sections to great effect. Like the two other pieces on this program, it is written specifically for a virtuoso ensemble, and it is a blast to play when everything goes well.

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