USC Symphony

Koger Center, Columbia

Sept. 13, 2016

The University of South Carolina Symphony began its 2016-2017 season with two works: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 and Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18. Marina Lomazov was the pianist. Donald Portnoy was the conductor.

Starting off the school year with these two works is almost enough to earn an academic degree on the spot. The demands on all players are tough and lengthy. The orchestra is comprised of university students from undergraduate through doctoral music majors, and some pursuing other majors like astrophysics, but with the talent and ability to win an audition to play in the orchestra. The great success of this mélange of talent is entirely up to the professor who is on the podium. In this case, it was Donald Portnoy, who began his final season before retirement. It was obvious in this concert that its 80 members were totally committed to making great music come alive, which honored their esteemed professor.

Russian Romantics was the title to the program. Choosing 19th century Tchaikovsky and early-20th century Rachmaninoff showed that both are faithful to earlier classical forms, but with harmonic, rhythmic and dynamic contrasts that make the expansion of music into what we like to call Romantic.

Tchaikovsky’s symphony, with its “fate” theme in the arresting first movement, was played with fine sense of making a great statement. As might always occur, there were a few entrances when a player wasn’t quite ready to play well, but none of these interrupted the piece’s intensity. The second movement’s lush melodic content could have tamed any shrew.

It was the third movement that was the remarkable achievement of the evening. The driving quick tempo taken by Maestro Portnoy, the expertise of the pizzicato strings, the subtle staccato winds, and the interplay among sections all resulted in a flawless performance.

Then entered Marina Lomazov. Rachmaninoff’s concerto begins with solo piano in a slowly building structure that within about one minute simply thrills the heck out of everybody. Few composers write an introduction that beautifully. Rachmaninoff himself was a great pianist and wrote for great pianists. Lomazov ranks precisely in that top rung. Her flawless technical abilities, the strength of her tonal prowess, and the intimate ability to make phrases simply provided the university students in the orchestra a rare opportunity to participate in first-class music making.

Lomazov graciously returned to the piano to offer an encore, a tenderly performed Prelude in G Major, Op. 32, No. 5 by Rachmaninoff.

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