Symphony concert featuring Russian flair

DOWNEY - This Saturday the Downey Symphony presents the final concert of its 2011-12 season, featuring three iconic artists from the pantheon of great classical composers, Dmitri Shostakovich, Franz Liszt, and Peter Tchaikovsky.As one might guess from their surnames, two were Russian and the third, Franz Liszt, was Hungarian--hence the concert's title, "To Russia and Back." All three of these composers projected highly distinctive personalities, both in their music and in their personal lives. Shostakovich, whose "Galop" and Symphony No. 9 occupy the entire first half of the program, was a somewhat obsessive former child prodigy - visualize a chain-smoking Harry Potter - who found his entire professional and creative life enmeshed in the Communist Revolution. Some Russian composers of the period, notably Stravinsky, simply left Russia in order to preserve their artistic freedom. Shostakovich stayed, his entire output caught between 20th-century instincts, a neo-classical bent, and the political necessity of being accessible and "democratic." Consequently he fell in and out of favor more than once during his career, not only with the Politburo and Premier Josef Stalin, but also with the Russian public. The "Galop," which opens the concert, features the Downey Symphony's annual baton auction winner on the podium, and, as the title suggests, is a spirited up tempo romp in the deliciously folksy and Russian-friendly key of C minor. Shostakovich's ninth symphony premiered in 1945 at a particularly delicate moment in Russian history, as the USSR and its Allies, including the United States, had just won World War II. A majestic paean to the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany was anticipated, but the work turned out to be quirky and largely high-spirited, unexpected, vastly different from his earlier symphonies, and viewed by some as possibly even a satirical critique. Consequently, it was actually banned in Russia between 1948 and 1955. The concert's second half begins with Franz Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major. Liszt, born almost a century before Shostakovich, was widely thought to be the greatest concert pianist of his era, if not of all time, achieving rock star status through a frenetically active, though relatively brief, concert career. He sported a pageboy haircut and an onstage persona that literally made the ladies swoon--imagine a combination of Mick Jagger and (for you classical music buffs) Lang Lang. The first concerto, like almost all of his piano music, requires all the virtuosic technique for which Liszt himself was renowned. The very first piano entrance is strikingly muscular and athletic, and sets the tone for a number of cadenza-like solo episodes, some remarkably lyrical and some requiring dazzlingly brilliant piano skills. And even though the work is loosely structured in the fast-slow-fast tradition of the solo instrumental concerto, Liszt continually revisits and reinvents the initial melodic and harmonic material, especially in the final movement, in a decidedly UN-traditional manner. Peter Tchaikovsky, chronologically between Liszt and Shostakovich, completes the triumvirate of eastern European composers in this performance, and the Downey Symphony closes its concert with his "Capriccio Italien." Tchaikovsky can be rightly viewed as one of the greatest all-time composers of melody, and the Capriccio does not disappoint in this regard. In contrast to the progressive material of the Liszt concerto and Shostakovich symphony, Tchaikovsky here has created accessible folk-like melodies that transcend Italian ethnicity. In fact, one or more of these charming melodies, played in thirds by trumpets, could just as well be mariachi music. Both the Tchaikovsky and the Liszt will be instantly recognizable to concertgoers familiar with classical music literature. Though the Shostakovich is less well known, it rounds out a fascinating musical visit "To Russia and Back." The concert takes place this Saturday evening at 8:00 p.m. at the Downey Civic Theater.

********** Published: March 29, 2012 - Volume 10 - Issue 50