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Orchestral Music Review

Western Piedmont Symphony: Masterworks Three

February 4, 2006 - Hickory, NC:

The Western Piedmont Symphony presented its third Masterworks concert of the season on Saturday, February 4, at First Baptist Church in Hickory. The concert consisted of works by Russell Peck, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Robert Schumann.

Opening the program was Russell Peck's Here in the Amber Waves, written in 1989 for the Nebraska Chamber Orchestra and the Spokane Symphony Orchestra. After significant revision, it was played by the Western Piedmont Symphony in 1991 and revived for this performance, Music Director John Gordon Ross having felt that it deserved more exposure.

Russell Peck was born in Detroit in 1945 and received his education at the University of Michigan, earning both Masters and Doctoral degrees in composition. He now resides in Greensboro.

The work is typical Peck, neo-classical, and filled with American musical idioms: jazz, country, gospel, cowboy movie music, to name a few examples. It is in three connecting movements: the first is slow, the second is a scherzo, and the finale is faster and more complex. A brass quartet of two horns and two trumpets provided virtuosic solo as well as ensemble work. The orchestra provided the rich, lush, "amber" sound that Peck has described as his intention in the piece. Peck, who attended the concert, received an ovation from the audience and seemed please with the orchestra's endeavor.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) wrote his Second Piano Concerto, the next work on the program, as a present for his son, Maxim, who premiered the piece as soloist on his nineteenth birthday (May 17, 1957). The concerto is in three movements, with the first having march-like themes for both orchestra and piano that hint at the anguish over Soviet oppression. The second movement, in a minor key, is one of sadness, but with an inkling of hope at the end. The finale has a jaunty exuberance, continuing the theme of optimism. Unfortunately, Shostakovich did not live to see the end of the Soviet era in Russia; one wonders how this would have changed his compositional style.

The piano soloist was Bair Shagdaron, who was born and educated in Moscow, Russia, and is now on the piano faculty at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. The concerto is a pianistic tour de force, and Shagdaron played with consummate agility and authority, an attestation to his background and fine training. There have been many fine soloists who have performed with the Western Piedmont Symphony, but even superlatives about Shagdaron's artistry and musicianship do not seem to suffice. With the help of the orchestra's outstanding accompaniment, I was immediately transported – no small feat – to the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, where this piece was premiered.

Following intermission, Maestro Ross led the orchestra in the Third Symphony, nicknamed "Rhenish," of Robert Schumann (1810-56). Schumann had just moved to Düsseldorf, and the Rhineland made many new impressions on him that were still fresh while he was working on this symphony. His first impulse to write the symphony was the sight of the Cologne Cathedral, while the elevation of the Archbishop to the cardinalate provided the inspiration for the fourth movement, in particular, which is solemn in character. The first and fifth movements are radiant and grand while the second, a scherzo, introduces more popular, dance-like music. The third movement serves as a lyrical bridge to the fourth. Here, again, the orchestra provided the lushness, richness, and elegance that this work requires.

To see such a large and enthusiastic audience was very pleasing, especially considering that half the concert consisted of 20th-century works. Perhaps this is indicative that we are losing our fear of contemporary music. The orchestra members are also to be congratulated on their hard work in preparing this concert.