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classical review: An Evening Tour of Russian Mastery

Shabalin Leads MITSO Through Emotionally Charged Repertoire

By Tony Hwang

MIT Symphony Orchestra

Kresge Auditorium

Saturday, Dec. 9, 2005, 8 p.m.

MITSO’s assistant conductor Alexey Shabalin made his first appearance on the podium Friday night, leading the orchestra through a varied assortment of Russian pieces. The audience was treated to movie music, excerpts from operas, and well-known symphonic work. Despite the slightly robotic feel of sometimes unnecessarily rigid rhythmic constancy, MITSO delivered another clean performance that captured the main points of the program.

The orchestra began with Georgy Svirodov’s “The Blizzard,” an orchestral suite adapted from his musical scores to a film of the same name. The movie tells the story of a girl named Marya and a young officer who falls in love with her against the wishes of their parents. After an unsuccessful attempt to elope, the officer goes to war and is killed in battle, causing Marya to fall ill. But she eventually recovers both physically and mentally, and is able to move on with life.

It was easy to follow the story through the nine sections of the suite. The opening alternated between loud, tempestuous noise and sections of agitated quiet, reflecting the emotional turmoil of the couple as they fled through the blizzard in the darkness of the storm. Other parts were more pleasant, like the graceful waltzes that captured the joys of being in love. MITSO played with proper execution and, despite some initial intonation discrepancies between the wind and string sections, was able to present the contrasting tones through the various parts of the suite. The “Little Military March,” for example, was light-hearted and upbeat, while the “Romance” featured earnest solos that tugged at the audience’s heartstrings.

Shabalin could have given the soloists more rhythmic freedom to sing through melodies and truly express the emotional intensity behind the notes. The many solos often felt pushed along by the conductor’s baton, and the music had the potential to be much more touching. All in all, a solid performance of a likeable piece: it was not hard to see why this suite has become widely performed in Russia, and from this concert audience’s positive reaction, perhaps it should be played more often by American orchestras as well.

Next in the program was a series of three opera excerpts performed with baritone soloist Anton Belov. The first two were from Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s operas, “Queen of Spades” and “Eugene Onegin,” while the last was from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Aleko.” Again, the story themes centered on pure love that has been tainted by unfortunate circumstance. Belov’s stage presence was compelling, and the intensity in his facial expression and body language held fast the audience’s attention without letting go. It is not surprising that his enunciation was almost impeccable, as Belov is also a specialist in Russian lyric diction. MITSO did a decent job of following the soloist, and played carefully to avoid covering him up. Granted, Belov’s deep voice was extremely powerful, so the orchestra did not need to worry too much about compensating for volume.

The last piece in the concert was Tchaikovsky’s famous Symphony No. 4. It was composed with the impression of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in mind, and thus similarly presents motifs of fate that repeat throughout the symphony. However, it was written at a time when Tchaikovsky was uncomfortable with his homosexuality, and it follows that he also adds themes of regret and hopelessness into this piece.

The symphony is unique in several ways, including the use of grand pauses (complete silence from the entire orchestra). In the midst of a strong opening from the winds, there are two short but well-placed moments of silence that add to the effectiveness of the notes that follow. Also, in addition to clever use of rests, the first movement plays with the triplet versus dotted eighth and sixteenth rhythm to spice up the tune. MITSO had difficulty distinguishing between the two, but still managed to capture the spirit of the movement. The second movement was lyrical, but unmatched articulations and the again inflexible tempo kept the orchestra from truly sounding beautiful. Much livelier was the third movement, where MITSO truly came together and played as a unit with great contrasts in dynamics and sudden switches in mood at transitions. Finally, the finale pushed forth with abounding vigor, escalating in waves through fast passages in the strings and again the grand pauses. The players gave a last push and ended the piece with a blast of energetic enthusiasm.

The MIT Symphony Orchestra gave a satisfying last performance of the semester, and introduced us to a significant part of the history of Russian classical music. Shabalin did an admirable job standing in for Anzolini, and with this performance MITSO has taken yet another step forward in cultivating its sound.