By McLaren Harris
If you think that season-opening concerts should begin somewhat gently, even tentatively, you may put that thought away. The Indian Hill Orchestra concert Saturday night (October 17) at the Littleton High School Performing Arts Center again opened under conductor Bruce Hangen with a rush. Last year it was Richard Strauss’s tone poem “Don Juan”; this year, it opened with mid-season verve from the orchestra and from piano soloist Gleb Ivanov, who brought down the house with Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
The Rhapsody was part of an all-Russian program comprising Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”, two movements of a symphony by Lera Auerbach, “Icarus”,and the opener, a dashing Concerto No. 1 for orchestra by Rodion Shchedrin.
In some after-concert remarks, pianist Gleb Ivanov called Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody “the best set of variations ever written by anyone on any musical theme.” As extreme as that sounds – Rachmaninov was up against stiff competition from Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, among others — he is probably correct. The 24 variations on the last of Paganini’s Caprices for violin explore just about every imaginable expression inherent in the theme, from light, agile, pizzicato-style touches to commanding, fortissimo chordal progressions of the Dies irae to the lush lyricism of the celebrated, “Hit Parade” 18th variation.
Ivanov has the physical presence, strength and musical temperament to match Rachmaninov’s all-out pianistic style. He switched from quick marked rhythms to two-fisted bombast almost instantaneously, from sensual, melodic passages to lightning changes of register and dynamics with unerring confidence, sustaining energy and purpose through the final notes. Conductor Hangen and the orchestra worked with him all the way, as they had to do, because neither side was taking any prisoners. The performance earned them a long and boisterous standing ovation.
As if the Rhapsody weren’t enough for him, Ivanov graced the audience with an encore, Claude Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau,from Book 1 of his Images – a huge change of mood and musical language, delicately performed.
For someone relatively little known in these parts, Lera Auerbach has a long list of creative accomplishments in music, literature and visual art. Her “Icarus” is an evocative, contemporary-flavored representation of Icarus’s winged flight to the sun and subsequent fall. She handles its large orchestral resources well, with soaring lines to represent the thrill of flight and some close dissonances express the rising heat from the sun and building anxiety as the wings fail, before finally settling to earth. The Indian Hill orchestra managed the sometimes difficult harmonic contexts well.
Shchedrin’s Concerto for orchestra was composed in the shadow of Stalin’s Soviet Union and its official, rigid musical tastes. The Concerto, while its harmonic language is rather conventional, is nonetheless entertaining, with its lighthearted, mocking tone and lively, dance-like feeling. The work takes attention to rhythm and tempo, and Bruce Hangen and the Indian Hill musicians appeared to have fun with it, as did the audience.
There are few secrets left in the well-traveled “Pictures at an Exhibition” of Mussorgsky in the Ravel orchestration, but the enduring popularity of its varied musical tableaux is well deserved. On Saturday night, it became an excellent showcase especially for the orchestra’s winds, which delivered delicate woodwind timbres and full-throated, deep and brilliant brass tones. Too many names to mention here, but they might have inspired the government of Ukraine to make the Great Gate of Kiev a reality.