Russians and a trumpeter
Conductor-pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn is the MSO's guest, and exec director Mark Niehaus dusts off his trumpet for Shostakovich.
Many months ago, Mark Niehaus, then the Milwaukee Symphony’s principal trumpeter, agreed to play the big obbligato part in Dmitri Shostakovich’s odd-duck Concerto No. 1 in C minor for Piano and Orchestra this weekend (Feb. 8-9).
Between then and now, to the surprise of absolutely everyone, Niehaus gave up his seat in the orchestra to become its president and executive director. He considered passing along the Shostakovich to a section player or to one of the guest principals filling in this season. But he didn’t consider that for very long. He’s playing.
“Shostakovich’s music is so filled with irony, and you can take it any way you want,” Niehaus said. “I take the silly irony route. The trumpet cadenza sounds like circus music. The concerto goes along, and then the trumpet comes in and just ruins everything. It’s a lot of fun.”
Niehaus is glad to get the opportunity to be in the midst of his colleagues once again.
“We went through this time of, ‘Oh, how to do we treat him now?'” Niehaus said. “Enough time has passed that I can get my fair share of ribbing.
“It was difficult during the Bruckner not to be on stage. That was one of the best concerts we ever played, and the brasses were just stunning. Of course, that got me to wondering whether it was so good because I wasn’t there.”
Still, he doesn’t regret his decision to move from the principal’s chair to the executive office.
“The long game, for a musician, is two to three weeks out, when you prepare your part,” he said. “The short game is right now. As the exec, the short game is six months and the long game is five or six years.
“As a trumpet player, I had to empty my mind in order to perform one task — and to worry about nothing. Now, I have to open my mind to all possibilities all the time. I’m using all parts of my brain every day.”
This program — the MSO’s second Russian program of the season — is interesting apart from Niehaus’ involvement. Solzhenitsyn — principal conductor of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, conductor laureate of the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra, and son of celebrated writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn — will conduct Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 6 and Anatoly Liadov’s Baba Yaga, a tone poem after a Russian folk tale about a witch who dwells in a “hut on hen’s legs.” (The hut makes an appearance in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.)
Prokofiev we know, but Liadov (1855-1914) is more or less a footnote in musical history and little played beyond Russia. He was a conductor, a nationalist composer and collector of Russian folk songs, part of Rimsky-Korsakov’s circle, and an influential teacher at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.
He was also notoriously lazy. For example, he spent 13 years working on Baba Yaga, which lasts less than four minutes.
And how did Liadov achieve his footnote? Well, Serge Diaghilev tried and tried to get Liadov to compose a score for the 1910 Paris season of the Ballets Russe. Liadov vacillated until the 11th hour. In frustration, Diaghilev turned to Igor Stravinsky to write The Firebird. The rest is history.
Principal historical source: Oxford Music Online.
Performance Info and Ticketing: This program begins at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 8-9, at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, 929 N. Water St. Call the MSO ticket line, 414 291-7605; the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206; or visit the MSO website.
What else is going on this weekend? Glad you asked.