Three Russian masterpieces were played on Monday night by the University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Dr. William LaRue Jones. They were joined by pianist Dr. Ksenia Nosikova in a concerto by Prokofiev to create a very memorable evening.
The program seemed to be in reverse order, starting with a symphony and ending with an overture. But when the first piece is Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 70, the gaiety and brevity of this work settle in the audience to prepare for the the heavier hitters to come. Like most young classical musicians of my generation, I remember being a teenager and falling in love with the turbulent emotions that Shostakovich’s other symphonic works evoke; and, I also remember watching Leonard Bernstein’s lecture on Shostakovich’s Ninth, describing the entire work as a musical joke. Dr. Jones’ performance adhered to every notion that I previously had about the piece: the humor of the piccolo and trombone interplay in the first movement, the brief despair of the (marvelously performed) bassoon cadenzas, and the rousing finale. The first movement procured images of the Young Pioneers of the USSR, marching to fife and drum, but getting distracted every now and again, but returning valiantly to the task at hand. Indeed, a clean and crisp performance, even to the back row.
I had studied Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26 with Dr. Nosikova a couple years ago, so it was very interesting to hear her perform the piece. The work is somewhat scary for both orchestra and soloist: a solo clarinet starts the piece and the piano has to jump on the train of allegro sixteenth notes, but both were played ably with aplomb. Dr. Nosikova’s steely brilliance broke through the orchestra clearly, and Dr. Jones accompanied well. The second movement is a set of variations on an andantino theme, the first variation written for solo piano. This moment was my favorite of the concert, despite one parent’s wailing baby. The disadvantage of the orchestra’s performances in the IMU is that only a very small percentage of concert-goers get an alright view (the front row), so I was unable to see what Dr. Nosikova does in the second variation, which has a notoriously difficult piano part that is reconfigured by many superstar pianists to fit the hands more easily. She played it well, but what was her secret? The last movement is quick on the outsides, but has a gooey center which clearly reflects the piece’s heritage and place of composition: Prokofiev wrote the bulk of the piece in France in 1921, and the planing triads and the impressionistic ambiance reflect (to my ears) the death of Debussy that happened a couple years before. This middle center also has the main characteristic of Russian music, the long golden strand of melody. In its own way is a set of variations, too, although it’s not indicated in the score. The last variation is the climax of the whole piece, and Monday’s performance clearly brought this to the fore, with Dr. Nosikova asserting the many fortississimo chordal accents. The piece closed in a whirlwind of C major, the audience rightly leaping to their feet.
I was so hungover from the concertante performance that it was hard to gather the energy to listen toTchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The opening chorale of the piece did make me well up, however–some pieces have this effect on me, the effect of a Classical Musician National Anthem, if you will (other anthems include The Ninth [Beethoven’s!, not Shostakovich] and “Aus alten Märchen winkt es” from Schumann’s Dichterliebe). It was fun to see the classical music laymen in front of me bob their heads to the famous theme at the head, and I joined them. Isn’t great music supposed to bring us all together, anyway?