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Chamber Orchestra Brings a Russian Winter to Durham

January 21, 2007 - Durham, NC:


It is a cliché repeated ad nauseum that the woes of classical music concert attendance are, at least in part, functions of the aging audience and their insistence on familiar works. Whatever the accuracy of this perception might be, one important fact is often overlooked: patrons of these concerts are fiercely loyal and won’t let anything get in their way. Despite a predicted 100% chance of some form of freezing precipitation, a relatively large contingent trekked to the Carolina Theater in downtown Durham for the first concert of the young year by the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle (COT).

It is easy to understand why there is such an attraction to these concerts – all you need to do is attend one and you are hooked. Where else can you hear a professional orchestra in a lovely, intimate setting playing a mixture of popular and seldom-played works, plus enjoy a reception with complimentary food and wine – all for $20?

The COT has grown a bit over the last year adding a 4th cello and bulking up both violin sectionst. But for this one concert they expanded to their largest size ever to accommodate the orchestration of the final work on the program – Shostakovich’s First Symphony. This was an all-Russian program, which was quite appropriate for today’s weather if you subscribe to the stereotype of Russia being in a perpetual deep freeze.

As he does for every concert, conductor and artistic director Lorenzo Muti spoke to the audience, giving some background and useful info on each of the works to be performed. Like early 18th-century Italy, crawling with composers churning out an unending stream of Concerti Grossi, late 19th-century Russia was filled to the brim with composers, many of whom tried to espouse their own brand of Russian nationalism. Anatol Liadov was a minor musical figure whose primary claim to infamy was that he was the first choice of Diaghilev to write the music for his ballet “Firebird,” but his procrastination in starting led to his dismissal and the subsequent re-assignment to Stravinsky. "Kikimora" is Liadov’s primary contribution to traditional orchestral repertoire. A short tone poem describing a malicious household spirit of Russian fairy tales, this work is reminiscent of Paul Dukas’ much more well-known composition "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." A big bravo goes to English horn soloist Carrie Shull with her huge, glassy tone filling up the theater.

Sergei Prokofiev was at the height of his creative powers in 1935 when he composed his Second Violin Concerto. It is no surprise to learn that he was also composing the epic score to the ballet Romeo and Juliet at around the same time. You can easily insert any or all of the three movements of this concerto into the ballet without any stylistic compromise. Both works are the epitome of the “Prokofiev sound.”

The violin soloist was Timothy Fain, a certified “up-and-coming” artist (as voted by Symphony Magazine). The opening was a tentative affair as soloist and orchestra circled around each other without quite settling into an agreed-upon tempo. They finally found their synchronicity and together soared on a beautifully expressive trip through this magical work. The second movement contains themes and harmonies that are simply exquisite. Again, the start was a little bumpy as the woodwinds' accompaniment to the delicate violin solo was way too loud. The finale was a technical showcase for the soloist while eliciting images of dueling Montagues and Capulets.

Fain, tall and slender, with longish hair and wearing a black velvet jacket, sometimes conjured up the ghost of Paganini – based on familiar drawings of the celebrated composer/violinist who, legend has it, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his dazzling virtuosity. Fain’s encore was a spectacular new piece by Kevin Puts named “Arches” that had the entire violin section watching with eyes wide and jaws dropped.

Bowing space was at a premium as a Steinway Grand, three trombones, tuba and assorted percussion shoehorned onto the already crowded stage for Shostakovich's First Symphony, written as his graduation piece from the Leningrad Conservatory at the age of 19. To modern ears this sounds like an extremely well crafted but cautious composition that does not quite yet hit you as “ah-ha, yes, that’s Shostakovich’s music.” This is quite understandable since the kid did want to graduate and the formalistic Russians might hold you back to take another counterpoint course if you went too far out. Mileage will vary as to listeners’ response to this work, but no reasonable person can deny the world-class performance. This was playing at the highest level of musicianship. Crisp rhythms, impeccable intonation and a perfectly maintained balance among sections by Muti made this one of the highlights of COT’s existence.

Check out the website for more information: http://www.ibiblio.org/chamberorchestra/ [inactive 4/08]. Attending a COT concert is a perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Drop by to hear great music in an historic, yet informal setting, and stay afterwards for a drink and a nosh.