Tom Di Nardo | Guest Reviewer
Thursday evening’s Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra concert featured return appearances by conductor Christopher Seaman, who made his debut last season, and Ukranian-born pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk, making his sixth season visit. High humidity after a morning downpour isn’t helpful to keeping instruments in tune outdoors, but that didn’t seem to affect these responsive players.
Seaman retired last year after 13 seasons with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, and he has conducted widely in Britain, Europe and with many American orchestras; like his fellow English-born conductor Simon Rattle, he began his career as a timpanist. He chose two extended works considered inadequate youthful works by their composers, both to be revised years later.
Dressed in a long-sleeved blue shirt and black vest, he began the concert with Jean Sibelius’ powerful “Finlandia,” a virtual anthem of pride with its fervent hymn at the close. It was the last of seven pieces Sibelius composed to support writers, one of many groups of Finns censored and repressed by the occupying Russians. At its many performances soon after its premiere, it was given fanciful titles — pretending not to be nationalistic — to escape the wrath of the Russian censors.
The raging brass, then menacing bassi and celli, began this powerhouse reading as an introduction to the famous tune, stated first in glowing flutes and oboe passages and eventually in a stirring declaration from the whole orchestra. It’s no wonder the Finns immediately embraced this work as their musical signature and Sibelius as a national hero.
Gavrylyuk has triumphed in many major international piano competitions: the Horowitz in Kiev, the Hamamatsu in Tokyo and the Arthur Rubinstein in Israel. He has performed all over the world, has made some stunning recordings of the Russian repertoire and has become a favorite of Chautauqua audiences in recent seasons.
Though he will play the more familiar Rachmaninoff Second Concerto on Saturday evening, Gavrylyuk chose the much-less-performed First Concerto. Moscow Conservatory students were expected to model their works after an existing concerto — in this case, Grieg’s Piano Concerto. The 18-year-old Rachmaninoff only played his original version once — and even refused to play it at his London debut — though his dedicatee and cousin Alexander Siloti continued to schedule it.
Twenty-five years later, in 1917, Rachmaninoff had acquired the mastery to rework the structure and orchestration into the version we hear today. He would soon leave Russia — never to return — and finally hear the premiere of his revised concerto in New York.
Considered by many the greatest pianist of the last century, Rachmaninoff fortunately recorded all four of his concertos with his favorite Philadelphia Orchestra. (Regrettably, the longest Third Concerto is heavily cut, since it had to fit onto four 12-inch, 78 r.p.m. discs). All of his concertos require monumental chops and the ability to play with tenderness as well as overwhelming power.
Gavrylyuk demonstrated that he has that enormous piano technique to burn in the Russian style, with hands and fingers horizontal to the keyboard; he often leaned his head over his hands as if he were willing his fingers to play, and he occasionally sprang back from a big climax with gusto.
Yet, unlike some other players with big pianistic ability, he reveled in the ruminative passages in between the cascades of 10-finger chords and scampering arpeggios that accompanied the strings. His solo just before the first-movement coda was elegant and songful, like one of his gorgeous Preludes.
The middle cantabile movement brought out its songfulness — and the soulfulness — with gradations of softness, joined by the bassoon, then the horn. In passages Gavrylyuk played as if improvised, there was a dialogue with solo winds that made Seaman’s left hand urge the strings to play more pianissimo — a gesture he repeated several times during the concert to allow the winds to sing out.
In the finale, there are several magnificent string entries that sound almost-pleading, with Gavrylyuk’s poetic sections of repose alternating with scurrying runs as if child’s play. He seemed to be playing with some freedom, and Seaman understood where he was going right up until the final cadenza and galloping coda. It showed that, in the right hands, the First (and also the Fourth) shouldn’t be neglected.
Gavrylyuk left with his shirt soaked and, acknowledging the standing ovation, rewarded the audience with a flowing reading of Debussy’s “Première arabesque” — maybe to show that he’s not just a Russian interpreter.
Disliking the original version of his work, just as Rachmaninoff did, Mendelssohn considered the original version of his Second Symphony to be “a piece of juvenalia” and discarded it after several performances. It was published as his Fifth 21 years after his death and, like many works, was given its title “Reformation” by its publisher. It was not performed at the occasion for which it was written — the 300th anniversary of Martin Luther’s statement of faith — and even after some revisions was not considered by Mendelssohn to be worthy of his output.
In its introduction is the six-note Amen sequence originally sung in the German state of Saxony and known as the Dresden Amen. (Bruckner, Mahler, Wagner — in “Parsifal” — and others used this motif as well, but intended no reference to the Reformation). Of course, Martin Luther’s anthem “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is the cornerstone, with the chorale played mightily at its conclusion.
The potent brass opening led to the glowing statements of the Amen, and Seaman didn’t let the slight themes drag. Winds begin the second movement as the themes meander, but there were excellent statements of the bouncy tune from all the woodwinds. That movement and the third sounded like commission writing, but the orchestra played it as if it was a great work — which it isn’t.
Going without pause into the finale, an urgent flute solo herald’s Luther’s hymn and soon the full chorale. The winds and brass shone in this movement, with the brass declaring the theme, some celebratory writing and an emphatic finale, though the last few pages could have been beefed up with little more thrust and excitement.
Though this “Reformation” was given a beautifully played reading, these ears agree with Mendelssohn, one of the few composers in history who didn’t have to write music to put food on the table. Though he was writing music inspired by his faith, the stress of a deadline while ailing perhaps prevented him from composing on the level of the String Octet, the brilliant Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the resplendent “Hebrides” Overture to come later that year. But the performance, with real orchestral unity, tried its utmost to convince that this work was on that level.
Gavrylyuk will perform the more familiar Rachmaninoff Second Concerto Saturday evening, with Seaman again on the podium to lead Wagner’s now-iconic “Ride of the Valkyries” from Die Walküre and Antonin Dvořák’s songful Eighth Symphony.
Having heard three concerts by the CSO, with many members of the top orchestras in the country returning for many seasons, I’m highly impressed by the remarkable quality and unity of their playing.
Art is costly — great art is expensive. With so many orchestras folding — and many of the big ones in serious financial straits and even bankruptcy — this writer is encouraged to see the appreciation these audiences demonstrated. They are enormously fortunate, and I hope all Chautauquans realize, through their support, the high level of artistry they can enjoy in a few blocks’ stroll.
Tom Di Nardo has written on the arts since 1982 for the Philadelphia Daily News and has published articles in Symphony, Attenzione, and Music Makers magazines, Stagebill, Playbill and the Grove Dictionary of Music.