South Carolina Philharmonic

Koger Center, Columbia

Sept. 9, 2016

How interesting to be treated to a concert of all Russian (pre-Putin) music at a time when we are again somewhat suspicious or annoyed by international politics. Yet we know that some of the world’s finest classical music is from these three Russian-born composers, among many others of Russian heritage.

Such was the crossroads from which Friday’s audience confronted Russian Fireworks, the South Carolina Philharmonic’s first Masterworks concert of its 2016-2017 season. The program was Festival Overture, Op. 96 by Dmitry Shostakovich, Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Symphony No. 5, Op. 100 by Sergey Prokofiev. The Shostakovich was complemented by additional members from Fort Jackson’s own 282nd Army Band. The Tchaikovsky soloist was world-renown Sayaka Shoji. Morihiko Nakahara was the conductor.

Apart from the music, it was great to find that the lighting in the hall is now able to be set so that the audience can indeed see the printed program during the performance.

Shostakovich’s remarkable feat of composing the Festival Overture within a week’s time in 1954 — which included getting the parts copied and the orchestra rehearsed — overshadows the reason for it. It was composed for the 37th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Despite it being in reference to Lenin and the horrors of Stalin’s murderous regime, it’s a wonderful piece of music that all of us would love to have played on a festive occasion — heightened here by the excellence of the 14-member 282nd Army Band.

Violinist Sayaka Shoji won the 1999 Paganini Competition at age 16 and has become one of the world’s most accomplished artists in recitals, chamber music and as soloist with most of the major symphony orchestras in the world. Playing the Tchaikovsky concerto, she quickly arrested the audience with her impeccable technique, the beautiful sounds of her prized violin, and — above all — her sensitive musicality: phrases, dynamics, tone color, all the requirements for a moving performance. Moreover, the orchestra and Nakahara responded with resplendent playing.

There have been times in the Philharmonic’s history when these two works were enough to begin a season. But under the determination of Nakahara and the superb management of the orchestra, literally all the right people were booked to play this opening concert. Adding the challenge of the Prokofiev to the Tchaikovsky seemed daring. What was heard was a performance of Prokofiev’s Fifth that clicked in every way.

Prokofiev’s brilliant orchestration gives nearly everyone in the orchestra vital passages with complex rhythms and dynamic textures. The performance was a perfect example of how professional musicians prize their artistry. For them and the audience, the brilliance of this symphony is how it uncovers optimism in the midst of all those things we humans must go through. When one considers his completing the work in 1944, Prokofiev could well have reflected the agonies of World War II. “The grandeur of the human spirit” is a phrase attributed to Prokofiev about this symphony. Indeed, with such a brilliant performance the Columbia audience heard, the human spirit was greatly nourished.

Still, there were some maladies. Tchaikovsky uses the horns more as woodwinds, which means they must blend with the woodwinds. Seating them with the bells of the horns playing directly into the back wall of the shell is a serious acoustical mistake. They didn’t blend — they dominated and sometimes sounded insecure. The piano was nearly totally lost despite the obvious demanding role it has. If the piano lid had been removed, its chances would have been improved. While the harp was obviously open, there needed to be more care about how it balanced with the other textures.

Despite these faults, the concert pushed past our current questions about international politics, presenting a fiery evening of Russian music.

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