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For the conclusion of its 2005-06 season, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra retained the services of the up-and-coming twenty-seven-year-old pianist Simon Trpceski. A native of Macedonia, he has already made a name for himself on the world stage with two acclaimed recordings and performances with some of the most noted orchestras in Europe and America. An April 28 concert in Belk Theater was his debut performance in Charlotte. Accompanying him on the podium was Resident Conductor Alan Yamamoto. It was an evening of anniversaries. This year marks the 100th since the birth of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who was featured on the program, and the CSO officially announced its loaded 75th anniversary season.
Opening what looked to be a remarkable program was a piece by Chen Yi, a contemporary Chinese composer who studied in America at Columbia University under the tutelage of Mario Davidovsky. She currently holds a professorship at the University of Missouri. The CSO, as a part of their pledge to program more contemporary works, opened with Chen's Ge Xu (Antiphony). Written in 1994 as an imitation of the songs of the Zhuang people of Southern China, it is a solemn yet multicolored piece of music. It features an extended percussion section that includes timpani, bass drum, suspended cymbal, crash cymbal, two conga drums, vibraphone, clappers, tam-tam, four tom toms, and wood block. Whew! It was clear that there would be a lot of thumping in this work. Yamamoto did a wonderful job blending the modern style of the piece with the ancient subject matter. The antiphonal nature came through very clearly and the line was easy to follow. It is a very compartmentalized work, forcing the strings to carry the load for an certain amount of time, then the percussion, then the woodwinds, and so on, culminating in clangorous outbursts at intervals throughout and during the coda. Chen shows herself to be a first-rate modern composer and we will hopefully hear from her again in Charlotte.
The next work was once called "utterly worthless, absolutely unplayable; the piece as a whole was bad, trivial, vulgar."* It hardly seems like a score the CSO would have already performed twelve times in its 74-year history. As a matter of fact, it is hard to imagine that the piece, given such a chiding review in its first performance, has become the cornerstone of the romantic concerto repertoire. Almost a necessity for any concert pianist to have in his pocket, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23, is a work of unmatchable charisma and beauty. Trpceski brought the necessary virtuosity, coming down with aggressive fervor on the famous opening chords, and blazing through the octaves in the finale. There was an inquisitiveness in his playing, a searching, as if he had not come to his full conception of the work, yet this element added a freshness to this oft'-played score. He was trying very hard to get the fullest possible sound from the keyboard and succeeded fairly well. While it was not the most thunderous performance ever, it certainly was crafted well enough to make up for the loss in volume.
The orchestra likewise turned in a memorable performance. Yamamoto set a manageable pace and worked well fashioning tension between the ensemble and the soloist. One point marked with splendor and passion is the first ritornello, in the opening movement, which some conductors gloss over too quickly, failing to capture its beauty. This conductor nailed it and brought the orchestra back with full sound and proper tempo so as to relish this robust passage. The CSO continued to perform in a straightforward manner while delicately contriving a nervousness that prevailed throughout. There are numerous recordings of this work, with some of the greatest soloist-conductor combinations imaginable, so I think the goal in this concerto is to bring something new to it, to make it fresh again. Mission accomplished!
After an exhilarating encore written by a Macedonian composer whose name I did not catch, and a brief intermission, Yamamoto continued in much the same vein with a work by another Russian composer that also received sour reviews at its premiere. This "economy version," as the conductor called it, of the normal Dmitri Shostakovich symphony was not considered poorly written, only poorly timed. He had announced that he was composing a large-scale choral symphony in honor of Vladimir Lenin. When critics and audiences alike turned out for it, they were surprised and angry to hear the smallish Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 54. With no chorus and a fairly short duration, it was certainly not what he had promised. However, time heals all, and now we can see the relevance of the work and its place in the composer's playbook. The first movement takes up well over half of the piece, and it was not held together very well by Yamamoto. Long solo passages and difficult-to-follow rhythmic movements make it easy to tear the fabric of the score. The solos, and especially one for English horn, were captivating in themselves, however, and they kept the work from becoming dull. The scherzo was lively and more recognizably the work of Shostakovich. The orchestra seemed to regain composure in the two remaining movements and portrayed the satirical intentions of the composer in the impetuous finale. A more prominent work by the composer might have been more appropriate to celebrate his birthday, but time is clearly an issue that comes into play when programming Shostakovich.
Yamamoto and the CSO gave fitting conclusion to this season and, with promises of an eventful year ahead, deservedly took several curtain calls before exiting the stage.
*The quote is from Nikolai Rubinstein, to whom the piece was originally dedicated.