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Symphony orchestras often program blockbusters for the closing concert of their season. This is exactly what the Western Piedmont Symphony did for their final Masterworks Concert on Saturday, at First Baptist Church. Conducted by Music Director John Gordon Ross, the concert featured the return of the Degas String Quartet sitting in the principal string chairs.
The program opened with "Intermezzo" from Cavalleria Rusticana, an opera by Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945). Mascagni was one of Italy's most important composers in the late 19th century, although today he is unjustly known only for this one-act opera, despite having written many other operas and operettas and a large amount of concert music.
The "Intermezzo" is a quiet break between confrontations of the two principal male characters that takes place near the end of a church service. The performance included organ with the orchestra, an arrangement not usually heard in the concert hall. The orchestra played the "Intermezzo" with serene beauty and tenderness.
Next on the program was the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat, S.124, by Franz Liszt (1811-86), with Andreas Klein as piano soloist. Klein is an internationally-acclaimed pianist who has performed in the leading concert halls of the United States and Europe and has played with many of the country's leading orchestras.
Liszt was a Hungarian virtuoso pianist and composer of the Romantic period. His First Piano Concerto was completed in 1853 and premiered in 1855, with Liszt as the soloist. The composer broke musical ground with this concerto by using themes — most notably the well-known opening motif — that are recalled throughout the entire work, in order to form a unified musical idea. He also introduced the use of trombones, tympani, and the triangle into works of this type. The work is a virtuosic tour de force, and Klein ably negotiated the difficult passages with great aplomb and style. The orchestra provided superb collaboration with the soloist, from the delicate solos of the violin, clarinet, flute, and triangle to the grandiloquent tuttis of the full orchestra.
The pièce de résistance of the evening was the performance of the Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47, by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75). Shostakovich lived his entire adult life in Soviet Russia under communist rule, and his music was a strong reflection of that oppression. In 1936, the composer had come under the scrutiny and criticism of the party censors and Stalin himself, who had described his music as "chaos." The Fifth Symphony, written in response to these reproaches, convinced party officials of his "rehabilitation," but the audience at the premiere interpreted the work differently. The applause lasted for an entire hour, and the people were in uproar, running through the streets, congratulating themselves on having been at such an important event. They had understood the message: the triumph of the spirit over sorrow, suffering,and isolation.
The symphony is in four movements. The first movement opens with an unsettled rhythmic theme, moving into plaintive and dramatic subjects, and finally settling into a beautiful and peaceful flute solo. The second sounds like a peasant dance and seems to be poking fun at the censors, showing the peoples' triumph over tyranny. The third movement is for a smaller orchestra, employing no brass, with significant solos for harp, celeste, and woodwinds. It is unrelievedly tragic in tone. The fourth movement is optimistic and triumphant, although the joy is restrained and the rejoicing, forced.
Here the orchestra was one with the conductor. Their playing was precise, with the many passages for unison strings played with great meticulousness. Their dynamics ranged from the grandest of fortissimos to the eeriest of pianissimos. The woodwinds and brass, both solos and ensembles, were perfect. The percussion and tympani were rhythmic and forceful. The entire symphony was magnificent and more than words can describe. With the final note, the audience erupted into a well-deserved standing ovation.
I spoke with Maestro Ross after the concert and told him that he would have to work hard to beat this performance. His reply: "Just wait. I have plans...."