Another Tried-and-True Russian Extravaganza

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?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Another Tried-and-True Russian Extravaganza

  1. meganjstarr

    Good post Casey, I like the way you describe music. I have a few random thoughts and comments. First, I’m wondering if there is an official way to talk about an orchestra concert. I noticed that you say “Dr. Jones’ performance” and “Dr. Jones accompanied.” I would have just assumed to say “the orchestra.” Is one more correct or more commonly used?
    As for Dr. Nosikova, her performance was amazing. Sunday night’s rehearsal was the first time we were able to sit on risers and I could finally see her hands. I was surprised to see times when she was only using one hand. I assumed she was using both hands throughout. I’m not exactly sure what was going on during the second variation that you mentioned. However, I did notice times when Dr. Nosikova had her left hand on top of, not crossing, the right hand. Maybe this was the secret move?
    The dissonance and harmony of the Prokofiev made it one of my favorite pieces on the concert. There was even a section where the piano has the melody and what sounds like a half or whole step down played simultaneously. In addition to that section, there were many parts with close dissonances. For example, you mentioned how the piece ended with C Major and I know that my last 8 measures or so were all concert C-sharp. I think it is cool how Prokofiev’s music has a general pitch centricity to it but he throws in these close dissonances for added color and depth.

    • meganjstarr

      Also, I shouldn’t transpose late at night…I meant that my last note was concert B against the C Major.

      • caseyrafn

        It is probably because I’m a pianist that I choose to solely recognize Dr. Jones 🙂 In my mind, the conductor is the decision maker, the music maker, and the guide. It doesn’t mean that she or he should have a Karajan-like vanity or see themselves above the ensemble, but really I think that the orchestra musicians (in the bleakest, most depressing possible way) are just perfect executors with little room for creative license. It is similar as if I were to accompany a singer: if she or he is singing an opera aria, at this point in my life I don’t feel the need to bow or take credit, because generally the arias that they are singing are designed as vehicles for them–it is their baby. Now, if it is real chamber music, e.g. Schubert lieder or a Debussy cycle, then you bet that I would like to take that first bow with them, and if they decide they would like to bow before me then they better hope for a new pianist. Also, on the note of conductors, with great praise comes extreme responsibility; if there are mishaps beyond fracked notes, of course I’m going to be blaming the conductor. Good point.

        Yes, the last chord I believe technically is a major ninth chord (C major with B and D added) (side note: I’m looking at my mini score now and I realize that Dr. N has written some notes from when I read through it with the orchestra, happiness abounds!). These fun little non-chord-pitch additions in his works are probably the reason why people place Prokofiev in the ’20th century’ category, and why it’s more difficult to study Prokofiev in something like a post-tonal class: because he’s really just tonal music with some enfant terrible left-field chord tones and harmonic shifts. He hated Rachmaninoff for the sole reason that he was so extremely influenced by him, and I think it is clear in the (first three) piano concertos.

        Thanks for commenting Megan, good food for thought for me.

  2. megkhealy

    Casey,
    I always enjoy listening to your viewpoint. You are a great speaker and writer, and as always, I really enjoyed your take on this concert. Your word choice and description are excellent. I particularly enjoyed your description of the Shostakovich, and I also fell in love with the turbulent emotions Shostakovich portrays as a teen. I also enjoyed your take on the Prokofiev. It was interesting to hear from someone who had studied the solo piano part, for as an orchestral performer I personally had a hard time understanding and creating a deep appreciation for this piece during the concert cycle. The 1812 is one of my favorite pieces as well, and I agree with your statement that music is meant to bring us together. I also enjoyed your connections to other classical anthems and your Youtube links. I would have loved to have seen a hyperlink to one of your favorite recordings of the Prokofiev.

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