Exciting Russians we hadn’t heard
Guest conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn leads an unusual Milwaukee Symphony program with great skill and conviction.
The Milwaukee Symphony had never performed Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 6 before Friday night, when it did so with guest conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn.
I could hear why this symphony, on which Prokofiev labored from 1944 to 1947, doesn’t get the attention lavished on, say, the Symphony No. 1 (“Classical”) or the ballet music. The Sixth offers a wide spectrum of moods, but the overall impression is of heavy, dense music that pounds the ear often over 43 minutes and three movements. And Solzhenitsyn didn’t hold anyone back; I have never heard the MSO brasses at the decibel levels they hit Friday.
A triplet figure shoves ahead the most prevalent theme of the sprawling first movement. Prokofiev worked it and worked it in the exposition and again in the development. It took on an astonishing array of guises — a driving dance here, an anguished song there, and finally a witches’ sabbath worthy of Berlioz — without losing its identity. Solzhenitsyn rightly kept the music under pressure and heightened its sense of fitful searching and probing. Even the beautiful lyrical theme, for violins and oboe, had an edge, in the ominous ticktock staccato accompaniment.
A maelstrom of sound, among the most frightening effects you’ll ever hear from a symphony orchestra, opened the slow movement and recurred at an even more gargantuan scale in the finale. I don’t have the score, but I imagine chromatic scales overlapping and tangling as they descend in spirals, like a fleet of sinking warships still burning with erupting ammunition as they sink into the depths.
The violins race into the finale with a vivace dash very different in character from the high-viscosity, heavy-on-the-string sound in the first two movements. But just as we thought we’ve escaped into a jolly finish, Prokofiev elongates the theme. Suddenly, it seems to be running through molasses. It dwindles to a version of a chant from the first movement, then that terrifying maelstrom again. Stupendously violent hammer blows from the brass stop the music.
All in all, rough stuff; it left the audience a little dazed. A standing ovation slowly developed as the patrons came to grasp that this not entirely pleasant experience was grandly exciting. Solzhenitsyn stirred the Sixth not only vigorously, but specifically, and achieved distinct and striking musical moments within the general explosive fury.
The conductor — Russian-born but now based in New York, by the way — gave up the podium to Francesco Lecce-Chong and took up the piano for Dmitri Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, from 1933. Mark Niehaus, former principal trumpet and current chief executive of the MSO, played the extensive obbligato. (Niehaus hasn’t lost a thing.)
If the Marx Brothers had written a concerto this would have been it. Antic themes bound this way and that, cackling laughter erupts on the keyboard and in the ranks, subject and mood change abruptly, and musical pratfalls abound. Shostakovich assigned the trumpet lots of deliberately banal tunes, along the lines of circus music. The best joke in a piece full of them involved such a tune, but this one went on and on as the strings clacked along in col legno accompaniment in the finale. As if he could take no more of this, Solzhenitsyn raised both hands smashed them into the lower end of the keyboard. That crashing chord landed on the trumpet solo like an anvil on the head of Wiley E. Coyote. The woman next to me burst out laughing, and she wasn’t alone.
Lecce-Chong and Solzhenitsyn, who controlled the momentum, enforced a headlong rush in the fast movements and added to the Looney Tune vibe. No time to breathe, just go go go.
The MSO had not played the concerto since 1962. The orchestra had never played Anatoli Liadov’s Baba-Yaga, a miniature with sparkling orchestration and propulsive rhythm. Four minutes of fun.
This program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday (Feb. 9) at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. For more information, visit the MSO website