Photos by Eric Shea.
Andrew Druckenbrod | Guest Reviewer
Monsters, witches and a devil (well, Stalin, anyway). This was perhaps not a typical program for the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, but it was in turns electrifying, poignant, lovely and menacing.
In fact, the concert Saturday night in the Amphitheater was an intriguing look at danger set in Russia. It began with the fantastical one of two monsters that abduct the characters Russlan and Ludmilla in the opera of the same name by Glinka, moved to the frightful Slavic legend of Baba Yaga and concluded with Shostakovich’s secret account of the brutality of Stalin’s regime. All led by, with a measure of irony, but a conductor at ease, the American Ira Levin.
If the subject was intellectually stimulating, the level of difficulty — the Olympics still in my mind — was high with the overture to Glinka’s mid-19th-century opera Russlan and Ludmilla. In a genre that should be, well, a warm-up to the harder dives and vaults to come, this is an overture that abounds with virtuosity. Levin handled it with an aplomb that was to characterize his debut not just at Chautauqua Institution, but apparently the U.S.
The guest conductor who studied at the Curtis Institute of Music has spent the lion’s share of his career in Europe, specifically Frankfurt Opera. The latter somewhat explains his uncluttered style — keeping a full cast of singers together from the pit necessitates that. It was the right approach for an overture that needs extra concentration just to hit the lighting runs. The result was a precise and vivacious performance and a fiery introduction to fear, especially in the ominous rumblings of the development section.
The centerpiece of the concert followed, a spin on the folk tale of Baba Yaga by composer Michael Colina. It is worth pointing out that this, too, was not a typical program for any American orchestra for the mere fact that it placed a premiere in a prominent position. All but a maxim for decades, orchestras still do not tend to perform much contemporary music. So the Institution’s resident orchestra should be lauded for adding Colina’s “Baba Yaga: Fantasia for Violin and Orchestra” in its last week of concerts. It was not only a risk programmatically, but technically. This is a group of professionals, but learning new repertoire can be more difficult in the short time allotted by the season.
What’s essential about new music is what is crucial to all new art: a take on culture that speaks of and to our time. Colina did so not simply because he told the tale as a concerto, essentially, but because he focused on the redeemable through the story of Vasilisa. The witch who hunts children with alarming speed in a hut equipped on grotesque chicken legs here helps out the oppressed maiden to overcome her evil stepmother.
The work is a vehicle for violinist Anastasia Khitruk. Colina cast her part as the young, innocent and beautiful maiden with a touch of melancholy. Khitruk captured that wonderfully, bringing out a full, gorgeous tone but phrasing with subtle inflections that embodied both the fright of Vasilisa and her natural optimism. Khitruk’s playing was unaffected, but as the maiden encounters Baba Yaga in a cadenza, she offered confidence befitting the strength of that empowered character. Khitruk’s best quality is her bow arm, and it served her well in the second movement. Amid the threat of the witch, she played with broad strokes. And as Baba Yaga agrees to help Vasilisa, the violinist easily switched to bring out the warmth of this unlikely union.
Conductor Levin’s experience in opera also served him well in expressing the drama in the fantasia, but it was most appreciated in the work that concluded the night — Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. In the 1930s, the Soviet composer was perilously close to deportation and death after falling out of favor with several earlier works that did not fit Stalin’s demand for populist and uplifting music. Yet Shostakovich managed to express his disdain for the dictator and his sorrow for lost comrades and the Russian people (although this view remains controversial).
Amid the painful and poignant strains cultivated by Levin, here was the chance for the orchestra’s principals to shine, and they did. Flutist Richard Sherman displayed an uncommonly exquisite sound production at the onset of notes and then a rounded tone throughout. Concertmaster Brian Reagin and the horn section were similarly excellent. The woodwinds in general had that strident timbre that lended the necessary sardonic undercurrent to the work. The only qualm was that the trumpets were not nearly loud enough. Other than that, Levin’s direction had good balance and a keen understanding of the context of the symphony, right up to the forced smile of the “triumphant” conclusion.
Andrew Druckenbrod is classical music critic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh.