Springfield Symphony Orchestra finishes 74th season with Rachmaninoff (review, photos)

May 22 2018
Published by under Music, Springfield

The final concert of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra’s 74th season was devoted to the music of Russian composer/pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff.

More than 1,700 concertgoers leaped to their feet to give two enthusiastic standing ovations Saturday evening at Springfield Symphony Hall, as the Springfield Symphony Orchestra presented the final concert of its 74th season, devoted to the music of Russian composer/pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The first ovation hailed the performance of guest piano soloist Misha Dichter, who collaborated with Maestro Kevin Rhodes and the SSO in a brilliant performance of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Dichter’s half-century career has established him as one of the finest pianists in the business. He has said that the music of Johannes Brahms seems to have been written with him in mind, but on Saturday, one might have imagined that Rachmaninoff also had Dichter’s prodigious technique and vast palette of color and articulation in mind when he penned the Rhapsody, so comfortable did the music seem under Dichter’s fingers.

Intricate filigree, keyboard-spanning leaps, extended bravura passages – Dichter met all of Rachmaninoff’s signature challenges with a poetic urbanity, as if playing this incredibly complex music was the most natural process conceivable. Loud playing (and singing) is commonplace concert hall fare these days, but the ability to turn on a dime, as Dichter did, from a maelstrom of sound to the patter of raindrops – from a fusillade of octaves to the tenderest staccato – is the bailiwick of the best.

Dichter explored dynamic extremes, and pushed tempi to the very brink of control, clearly placing the utmost confidence in Rhodes, his partner on the podium, to read his mind and that of the composer and create a flawless rendition of the Rhapsody. In fact, during the intermission following his performance, Dichter said quietly, “Kevin is very good at what he does. He is a good man.”

The second standing ovation rewarded Rhodes and the orchestra for a superb reading of the last piece Rachmaninoff ever wrote, his Symphonic Dances Op. 45. A tour de force for the orchestra, it demands the highest level of skill from every player and tests the mettle of the most excellent musicians with its shifting rhythms and looping tonalities.

It was lovely to hear Lynn Klock’s honey-toned alto saxophone solo in the slow middle section of the opening dance. Lush strings, dripping with Hollywood melodrama (even though the piece was composed on Long Island, before Rachmaninoff moved to Beverly Hills), sang a breath-taking, melancholy air.

Had Wagner still been alive to hear the second movement’s array of triple-meter dances, he might have dubbed the piece “The apotheosis of the waltz” as he had labeled Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony “The apotheosis of the dance.” The myriad characters in the movement boggle the mind – dancers swirling, halting, awkward, graceful, extroverts, introverts, wall-flowers, show-offs. The movement had the half-mad quality of Ravel’s La Valse, written 20 years earlier.

The final movement employed both the Roman Catholic dies irae (Day of Wrath) chant and the Russian orthodox “Blessed be the Lord” chant used by Rachmaninoff in his All-Night Vespers (performed earlier this spring locally by the Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble). The use of the two motives engendered some boozy chromaticism, decadent sweetness (oozing into lapping waves of D-flat major, a favorite key of the composer) and menacing marches.

The evening began with three of Rachmaninoff’s Etudes Tableaux, orchestrated by Ottorino Respighi, much as Ravel (and others) orchestrated the Pictures at an Exhibition of Modest Mussorgsky. They appeared to be as difficult for the orchestra as they are for the solo pianist. In fact, concertmaster Masako Yanagita broke a string during the performance. Assistant Concertmaster Marsha Harbison gave Yanagita her violin, Midori-style, to continue playing and took the other offstage to replace the string, reentering to appreciative applause before the Rhapsody.

The SSO players outdid themselves in the all-Rachmaninoff program, demonstrating their individual and collective excellence once again, along with the skill, insight, energy, and tenacity of their conductor. Season 74 will be a hard act to follow.

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