all Ravel’s color: Gary Graffman.
Savings Bank Music Hall, April 15
Birth, death, the threat of war, the aftermath of war—the
programmatic or circumstantial elements of the Albany Symphony
Orchestra’s triumphant performance at the Troy Music Hall
last week touched on topics never more relevant than today,
painting them through the emotional abstraction of music.
Which may be the most compelling emotional manipulator of
By the time Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand kicked
into gear, with piano and orchestra merrily jazzing along,
the effect was very uplifting. An excellent melding of soloist
(Gary Graffman) and orchestra gave the work both excitement
way of background, pianist Paul Wittgenstein (philosopher
Ludwig’s brother) had his right arm shot away during World
War I, and thereafter built up a commissioned repertory of
left-hand-only piano works that included concertos by Prokofiev,
Britten and, of course, Ravel, who wrote his contribution
alongside his other (two-handed) piano concerto.
Wittgenstein also paved the way for soloists like Graffman
and Leon Fleischer, both of whom became right-hand-disabled
at their career peaks. Graffman (who has himself commissioned
works from Ned Rorem and William Bolcom), now president of
the renowned Curtis Institute, has lost none of his performance
fire, and, unless you could see the keyboard as he played,
you’d easily forget the work’s dexterous restriction.
Three movements flow uninterruptedly in the 20-minute concerto,
which begins with a big brass statement that soon colors into
unmistakable Ravelian tones. The piano enters with a cadenza-like
passage (which caused the dour Wittgenstein to grumble that
if he wanted a solo work he’d have asked for one) of brilliant
The first hint of a warlike sentiment comes with the martial
aspect that informs the allegro, and I’m convinced that the
composer was mocking the pomp of battle preparation. Although
the work has fewer overt jazz elements than Ravel’s other
piano concerto, it adds syncopated elements along the way
before romping to an exciting, almost sardonic finish. You
couldn’t have asked for a better soloist, and conductor David
Alan Miller’s work with the orchestra was as accomplished
as I’ve ever heard it.
Given the challenges the orchestra regularly faces, this isn’t
surprising. The amount of new and unfamiliar music this ensemble
prepares and presents is impressive, and they continue to
turn in crisp, compelling performances of such. Like Chris
Theofanidis’s Rainbow Body, which opened the program.
Inspired by music of Hildegard von Bingen, it reworks material
from her Ave Maria, o auctrix vite, while paying tribute
to the Tibetan notion of death as a passage into light (hence
the title). Suitably mysterious in character, the brief piece
opens with a Vaughan Williams-ish chorale sound before crashing
into a Max Steiner moment with fortissimo orchestra. The Ave
Maria appears in a few different guises, notably in the
strings, while the use of brass throughout is most effective.
Stephen Danker was on hand to introduce the premiere of his
Dark into Light, presenting a musical portrait of an
awakening, often using Hebraic melodies and motifs as the
piece builds toward the exciting hora that concludes
it. Melodic, rhythmic and very accessible, it was another
showcase for a composer impressively skilled at using the
orchestra’s available color. And the players were equally
impressive. String sound has never been better, and the persuasive
solo moments by concertmaster Jill Levy indicate why.
Death, dismemberment, rebirth—and then Shostakovich. His Symphony
No. 6, which dates from 1939, was announced as a portrait
of Lenin and turned into something entirely different. The
discredited Solomon Volkov is quoted in the program notes
propounding his thesis that Shostakovich played the role of
clown to appease his deadly opponents, but this symphony alone
discredits that notion.
Building on the despair of the largo from the Symphony
No. 5, the opening largo of the Sixth is a tragic cry
for help, reaching an almost unbearable bleakness in its nearly
20 minutes. All of the instruments seem naked here; there’s
no room for anything but total commitment, and Miller and
the orchestra were dead on.
Two short, fast, more-sardonic-than-Ravel movements close
the work in a jaunty, Prokofiev-like manner, and I think we
all nevertheless felt like we’d been through a wringer. The
political overtones I was hearing may seem out of place, but
I certainly emerged from the concert treating those around
me a whole lot nicer.