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Jorge Richter, conductor of the East Carolina University Symphony Orchestra, offered another “deuce” in his 2011-12 programming, and he also teamed up with fellow ECU faculty member Leonid Finkelshteyn to present a work that few if any audience members were familiar with — a concerto for double bass.
In September, Richter paired Rachmaninoff’s ever-popular Second Piano Concerto with Sibelius’ grand Second Symphony. This month, he scheduled perhaps the least well-known of Peter Tchaikovsky’s six symphonies, the Second in C minor, Op. 17, to close a program that also included the Double Bass Concerto, Op. 3, by Serge Koussevitzky.
The concerto by Koussevitzky, who was much better known as the conductor guiding the Boston Symphony Orchestra into international prominence from the mid-1920s to the late 1940s, is an engaging, late Russian Romantic work. The composition places one of the orchestra’s great supporting instruments firmly in the forefront, but it doesn’t do so by trying to turn the double bass into a low cello. Finkelshteyn, who also serves as principal bassist for the North Carolina Symphony, brought some lovely music out of the instrument without sacrificing any of its heavyweight-y sound.
The first “allegro” movement opens with an emphatic brass statement, with a quickly ascending double-stopped figure in the bass about midway through, and this vigorous scoring gave way to an overall somber, almost elegiac, sound in the second “andante” movement. Koussevitzky repeated his opening statement to begin the third “allegro” movement, using strings in place of the brass, and the piece built to an emotionally-charged ending. Finkelshteyn inserted a cadenza late into the piece, one that employed both bowing and plucking, and a brief pizzicato section sounded almost as if it soon would evolve into a jazz riff.
The size of the double bass, of course, makes it an unwieldy instrument, especially when the player must go up and down the neck quickly, and there were a few inadvertent swoops to be heard. Finkelshteyn’s tone also sounded a bit thin and dry as the second movement rises to an end, but he clearly had command of both the instrument and the music, and hearing a concerto for double bass was quite an interesting experience.
The concert closed with the Tchaikovsky symphony that is also known as the “Little Russian” (composed in 1872 and containing references to at least four native folk tunes), and the work showed some flashes of the symphonic brilliance that Tchaikovsky would become so well known for in his Fourth, Fifth and Sixth symphonies. But it also showed some missteps, perhaps out of inexperience, chiefly in an over-reliance on repetition of musical themes and phrases.
The university players generally were quite skillful with their handling of the score, especially in the final “moderati assai” movement. Real strengths in this performance were the winds and horns. The opening horn solo in the “andante sostenuto-allegro vivo” was played quite well, and the delicate winds in the second “andantino marziale, quasi moderato” movement came out with great skill. The second movement started like a march, but not a bombastic one, and the melody is drawn from a wedding march he composed in 1869 for the opera “Undine.” Bird-like calls of the piccolo and flute in the background of the third “scherzo-allegro molto vivace” movement also were highlights.
But the strings also were able to shine as well. The dense string chord in the opening in support of the horn along with the subsequent series of five-note phrases, were played with vigor and precision, and the strings provided an appropriately soft cushion for the winds in the second movement.
Tchaikovsky’s reliance on repetition was exemplified by the final movement. Although it certainly builds to a thrilling climax, the seemingly unending repeat of the four-note ascending figure followed by the six-note descending phrase almost indicated that the composer wasn’t quite sure how to bring the piece to a close, or maybe he had begun to run out of ideas. The players provided a vigorous reading of the entire piece, especially the finale, and the rousing conclusion prompted considerable cheering from the audience.
Richter opened the program with another Tchaikovsky work, a suite from the Swan Lake ballet. Even minus the famous waltz, this music nevertheless is quite delightful (the bright mazurka almost makes up for the absence of the waltz), and it was aided considerably by prominent pizzicato passages in the cellos and basses. Violinist Elizabeth Ivy, cellist Jesse Smith and harpist Winifred Garrett provided well played solos in the third movement, and there were nice small ensemble passages throughout.
Overall, the performance was a shade below the opening concert in September, but the orchestra set so high a bar for itself with that program, it would be difficult to match. Entrances and cutoffs were played with precision, and nearly all the exposed solo instrument lines were played with great skill, but the orchestral sound did not achieve quite the same brilliance and clarity of the first concert. Still, this was an attractive and well-played program that merits high praise