For the second time in less than a week, an imaginative Music Director has shown that it is possible to program an all-20th-century music concert and please both a general audience as well as critics tired of war horses too frequently raced. Conductor Barry Wordsworth and the BBC Concert Orchestra did that at ECU on January 25 with a program of all English music. On January 31, in War Memorial Auditorium, conductor Stuart Malina and the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra succeeded with a more geographically diverse program. Two purely orchestral Nocturnes by Claude Debussy from 1897 (first performed in 1900) and Aaron Copland's well-known Suite from "Appalachian Spring" (1945) formed a sandwich around real rarities - both piano concertos by Dmitri Shostakovich.
The two Nocturnes ("Nuages" ("Clouds") and "Fêtes" ("Festivals")) gently opened the concert. Although they were conceived as works for solo violin and orchestra in 1894, they were reworked in the present form in 1897 and premiered in 1900. A third, "Sirenes" ("Sirens"), added in 1901, calls for eight women's voices and is seldom played for that reason. The Greensboro musicians aptly conveyed with great clarity the illusory impressionistic textures. "Clouds" opened with "p" woodwinds at a slow tempo, joined in turn by "pp" strings with shining, precise high notes evoking the proper ethereal quality. When the low strings and bassoons joined in, darker color was added. Cara Fish had extended cor anglais solos, warmly played. Fine solos were also heard from violist Scott Rawls, Principal Flute Debra Reuter-Privetta and Concertmaster John Fadial. A rapidly repeated violin figure opened the doubly festive "Festivals." After the racing music and brilliant brass redolent of "Mardi Gras," muted trumpets suggested the approach of a solemn religious procession. The piece was very effectively built from near silence to full orchestra.
I can't remember ever hearing a live performance of the Concerto No. 1 in C for Piano, Strings and Solo Trumpet, Op. 35, the most often played and recorded of Shostakovich's two piano concertos. Pianist Christopher O'Riley was the sterling soloist. He appeared here in 1991 on Durham's Chamber Arts series. His wide dynamic range and clarity was on constant display and he brought out the full flavor of the work's striking and provocative themes. This Concerto, composed in 1933, is full of the sass and prolific invention that seemed to burst from the composer's pen before the full pall of Stalinism made multi-level meanings a matter of life and death. Principal Trumpet Anita Cirba was peerless in the significant brass part. In the indispensable Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, Elizabeth Wilson states that this Concerto "had a prominent solo trumpet part written with the Leningrad Philharmonic trumpeter Alexander Schmidt in mind although later he gave preference to the expressive playing of Leonid Yutiev, the Moscow Philharmonic's trumpeter." Without sacrificing brilliance, Cirba brought a warmth to the part not always found among American brass players. Both O'Riley and Malina praised her playing in the concert's informal Postlude.
After intermission, pianist O'Riley returned to play an even more rarely-programmed work, Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto in F, Op. 102, composed in 1957. This and the Concertino for Two Pianos (1954) were written as vehicles for his son, Maxim, who premiered the Concerto in Moscow on May 10, 1957, his 19th birthday. While the First Concerto was composed before the dread of Stalin, the Second was written in the period after Stalin's death in 1953 when government control had abated and Shostakovich's international stature had been enhanced by the release of quartets and symphonies he had kept hidden during the earlier, darker period. This work will come as a surprise to listeners acquainted with the brooding seriousness and multiple meanings of his mature works. In notes for the recommended Classics for Pleasure recording featuring Dmitri Alexeev, Robert Matthew-Walker aptly describes the First Concerto as "Shostakovich's happiest and most direct work." Both outer movements are extrovert and joyous without a hint of vulgarity or sarcasm. The supreme jewel is the astonishing "Chopinesque" Andante second movement. O'Riley brought out empyrean qualities to perfection. The music took my breath away. It is inexplicable why these two concertos are so seldom performed when they are clearly superior to several over-played repertory staples (i.e. Liszt) and - short and contrasting as they are - they make a fine double bill.
The concert ended with a well-played standard interpretation of the Suite version of Copland's Appalachian Spring . The playing was taunt and rhythmically alert with a plethora of excellence from principals and sections. I noted fine solos from Concertmaster Fadial, clarinetist Kelly Burke, oboist Reuter-Privetta and trumpeter Cirba as well as polished work from the bassoons headed by Carol L. Bernstorf and the horns led by Robert Campbell. The percussion, led by Wiley Arnold Sykes, was hardly shy. Thus provided a rousing American ending to an effective and diverse 20th-Century program. I hope that Stuart Malina's successor is as imaginative in programming and as astute has he has been in selecting great young artists instead of burned out or over-the-hill household names who too rarely deliver.
During the engaging Postlude with O'Riley and Malina, the gap in coverage of live classical music performance in our Triangle region was once again brought to my attention. O'Riley said that earlier in the week he had been listening to a performance of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto that he had done with the Colorado Symphony. Members of the Triad audience also asked him about his radio show, "From the Top," which showcases young musicians. Public Radio International also broadcasts "In Performance," the show that had featured the Colorado concert. That program has featured many Greensboro Symphony concerts as well as others of interest to the Triangle such as concerts by the Borromeo String Quartet. Since WUNC dropped all classical coverage, only WCPE remains here, but the only live performance series it presents are the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. Most of its offerings seem to be "bread and butter" classical and Baroque works. Triad listeners can get "In Performance" on the public radio station based at Wake Forest University but apparently O'Riley's program is carried only by only one station in our state - in Charlotte. Public radio stations that still broadcast live concerts need to be supported and encouraged. Otherwise we will have only all-talk and news everywhere.
O'Riley returns to North Carolina in March 2003 for performances of Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 2 with the NC Symphony.