November 21, 2009

Exciting Shostakovich and Soaring Birds

One of the first RPO concerts I ever heard featured Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony. I was not familiar with the composer at the time, but left wanting to hear more. Since then I’ve heard several of his symphonies as well as chamber works, and each time I left feeling inspired. His music isn’t particularly hummable, but something about the orchestration, the color of the instruments, and the emotion behind the music grabs my attention.

Tonight’s RPO concert featured Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1, written when he was just 19 years old. The piece regularly surprised me – one minute I thought I heard English horn, but looked to find it was the bassoon. At another point I thought the basses were playing the melody – but it turned out to be cellos. And then when I thought for sure it was violins – it was the viola section playing. It’s almost as if he was toying with your perception of which instruments were playing at any given time. The piece even had the classical equivalent of a drum solo – with an extended part for solo timpani.

The rest of the concert was wonderful too. It started with Finnish composer Rautavaara’s Cantus arcticus, Concerto for Birds and Orchestra. Centered around field recordings he made in the arctic circle, it’s a bird-watchers paradise (at least in my imagination). At times it sounded like a film score – Winged Migration, perhaps. The last movement reminded me of the time I saw hundreds of snow geese fill the sky during their annual fall migration through Vermont, and was equally thrilling.

Guest conductor Hannu Lintu used his long arms and expressive gestures to draw a rich, full sound from the Orchestra for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. And soloist Augustin Hadelich held the audience spellbound – you could hear a pin drop during his solo passages. He delighted the cheering crowd by playing an encore from a Bach Violin Sonata.

Hearing the Tchaikovsky concerto also got me thinking of the wonderful melodies in The Nutcracker – less than a week away!

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