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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Minnesota Orchestra's spring program offers something for everyone

By Nikhil Gupta

For a Tchaikovsky concerto of the Late Romantic era, it begins rather strangely – softly and slowly, with an eight-measure melody that during the entire piece is played only by the strings. But rather than disappoint, Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto in D Major” can do naught but impress, and without fail the audience is treated to Tchaikovsky at his best – soaring romantic melodies, replete with such power that they exude emotion. The concerto follows a traditional form – three movements, the first and third taken at a quick tempo while the second is played more majestically. The first movement is my favorite, an epic twenty minutes of scintillating solo violin that builds to a gorgeous and completely overwhelming orchestral melody. In contrast to the excitement of the first movement, the second is a serene canzonetta that gradually quickens in tempo until it breaks into a lively Russian folk melody, representative of growing nationalistic influences in music in Europe during Tchaikovsky’s time, for the third movement. Tchaikovsky brilliantly weaves tempo changes into the third movement to facilitate the rise and fall of tension, before everything is resolved in a powerful finish. Such a brilliant piece, widely acknowledged as one of the greatest and most difficult violin concertos ever penned, was a fitting opener to the Minnesota Orchestra’s (MO) spring program Inside the Classics. Since coming under the charismatic conductor Osmo Vanska, the MO has tried to become more accessible to the general public. At the same time it has garnered much critical acclaim, in part for its recordings of the complete Beethoven symphonies. The MO’s latest program is no different, combining accessibility to the public with high quality performances and a string of excellent classical music compositions. However, Into the Classics is not what you would expect.

The evening is divided into two portions. In the first half, three hosts from the orchestra discuss the pieces they will play, providing the audience with some context and brief analysis. For the “Violin Concerto in D Major.” the orchestra played snippets of the concerto and various other works by Tchaikovsky, showing the similarities and differences across the composer’s works. While this portion of the first half is illuminating and welcome, the MO sometimes strays too far from the traditional in their attempts at accessibility. For example, during the Tchaikovsky performance the three hosts were joking about a supposed sixth sense between conductors and soloists. They decided to test this hypothesis by blindfolding the conductor and having the orchestra perform for a few minutes. Beyond being completely unnecessary, such actions detract from the music. Overall, however, this beginning half of the program is excellent and provides the audience with a framework with which to view the piece. The second half of the program is a more traditional orchestra concert, the orchestra playing straight through their pieces.

There are three more concerts in the Into the Classics series: Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 1 in F Sharp Minor” and Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 5 in D Minor” on the weekend of February 29, Dvorak’s “Cello Concerto No. 2 in B Minor” and Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances” on the weekend of March 28, and Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” on May 1.

Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos are regarded as some of the most difficult music written for the piano. They are also among the most played works for piano and orchestra. He wrote his first piano concerto at age 19, and while it is a beautiful piece of music it lacks some of the maturity of his second and third piano concertos. Nonetheless, the work is exciting, showcasing the virtuosity of a pianist while maintaining an emotional depth that is often lost with virtuoso pieces on the piano (i.e. some of Prokofiev’s piano concertos). One of the highlights of the piece is a haunting, slower melody that appears halfway through the first movement, the piano sounding lyrical and ethereal, playing shimmering cascades of notes, while the strings and horns create a beautiful lament.

Shostakovich’s “Fifth Symphony” is regarded as a turning point in his career. He wrote in Soviet Russia, and was swept by the idealism of the Revolution. This is reflected in his first three symphonies (which he later disowned), two of which are titled “To October” and “The First of May.” Upon completion of his “Fourth Symphony” he came under attack from the Soviet government in 1936, which feared intellectuals and artists and actively suppressed them. Following his fall from grace, he was given a second chance and was commissioned to write a patriotic symphony. However, his “Fifth Symphony” is a satire of patriotism and happiness rather than a piece of Soviet propaganda. While the Propaganda Ministry failed to recognize it, the discordant, dark melodies and unsettling conclusion to the piece does not fail to communicate to the audience a message of disharmony, pain and coercion. It is not the easiest or most pleasant piece to listen to, but it is rightfully hailed as one of Shostakovich’s best symphonies, showcasing his brilliance as a composer.

Dvorak’s “Cello Concerto No. 2 in B Minor” is similar to Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto” in style and form. Like Tchaikovsky, Dvorak brought elements of his homeland, the Czech Republic, into his works, and in the cello concerto one can catch refrains well known from his “New World” symphony. The concerto has lush minor melodies, and beautifully captures a sense of longing. My favorite moment in the piece occurs in the first movement. Dvorak first establishes a dark refrain that is echoed throughout the movement and passed from solo cello to orchestra and back again until the very end of the piece, when he alters the refrain by a single note, raising the final note in a broken chord by a half step. This changes the tone of the piece from one of desolate unfulfilled yearning to one of overwhelming hope for the future, haunting in its desperation.

Performances are at Orchestra Hall. Student rush tickets are $15 or $10 if purcahsed in advance at Regular ticket costs $22-45.

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    Tim AverySep 6, 2019 at 6:19 am

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