Music transcends all differences. Vladimir Lande, conductor of the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra, intimated this on Tuesday evening, graciously adding that in the spirit of friendship his Russian orchestra would open their program in Mechanics Hall with music by an American composer. That piece was the "Overture to Candide," Leonard Bernstein's musical take on Voltaire's novel.
The orchestra, performing in Music Worcester's 155th Festival Season, gave a rhythmically compelling reading of the Bernstein work, a rousing program opener. If perhaps the playing was a bit ponderous to suit the mood of the fantastical tale, it was nevertheless a satisfying performance.
It was exciting to see so many youthful faces among the members of the orchestra, a sign that the group will have a long future together with an opportunity to grow and mature. With approximately 70 members, the symphony is a small organization, but the size was perfectly suited to the acoustics of Mechanics Hall. It was also a delight to see many children in the audience, as well as many new faces, encouraging and welcome signs.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's four-movement work, "Scheherazade," another composition based on fantasy, followed. Rimsky-Korsakov had originally included titles for each of the movements, but later withdrew them, not wanting audiences to hear the work as programmatic. They still are often used, however, and it was surprising to discover the titles were not included in the program.
Rimsky-Korsakov was a master orchestrator, lending his orchestrating talents to completing works by, among others, his friends and colleagues Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky and Alexander Borodin. The orchestration of Scheherazade gives individual members of the orchestra a chance to shine and shine they did. The concertmaster spun the beguiling main theme with sinuous grace, and there were excellent solos from musicians in the woodwind section. The orchestra beautifully realized Rimsky-Korsakov's sumptuous orchestration, playing with rich and varied instrumental tone colors. I found that transitions between changes of tempo were not always prepared and sometimes seemed abrupt, but the performance was very good.
The highlight of the evening was the performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto #3. Rachmaninoff wrote the Third Concerto for his 1909 American tour. His first stop was at Smith College, just down the road in Northampton, where he gave a solo recital. Several weeks later he premiered the Third Piano Concerto with the New York Symphony, Walter Damrosch conducting; and soon after that he repeated his performance with the New York Philharmonic, Gustav Mahler conducting.
In Tuesday evening's performance of the Concerto, the St. Petersburg State Symphony proved to be a sensitive partner to the amazing piano soloist, Andrei Gavrilov. Gavrilov, he of the prodigious technique and lyrical sensitivity, sailed through the enormous technical difficulties of the Concerto with no apparent effort, throwing off huge cascading chordal sections with ease. The beautiful tonal colorations which he coaxed from the keyboard were riveting and ever changing. It was a virtuosic performance which drew the audience to its feet for a sustained ovation. After several bows with Conductor Lande, Gavrilov graciously acceded to the demands of the audience with an encore, Frédéric Chopin's last and posthumous e minor "Nocturne." In contrast to the full-blown works of the prepared program, this was a ravishingly beautiful and ethereal reading, mesmerizing in its delicacy. It was a perfect ending to the evening.