They came to sing: Albany Pro Musica.
By B.A. Nilsson
Symphony Orchestra, Albany Pro Musica
Theatre, Jan. 20
Night in Old Russia, as this program was titled, almost certainly
means a night with dyspeptic old Tchaikovsky—which can be
a tuneful but melancholy visit. In his Symphony No. 4
and 1812 Overture, however, the composer leaned, if
not toward happiness, at least to states of exuberant excess.
As performed by the Albany Symphony Orchestra last Saturday
at Albany’s Palace Theatre, these warhorses sounded dynamic
and fresh, and had the added bonus of a chorus in the 1812,
showcasing the distinguished sound of Albany Pro Musica. It’s
an excellent idea, combining the city’s premiere orchestra
and chorus, and this time the result gave us the distinctive
sound of Russian song, a flavor that pervades instrumental
music of the period, but flowers to life when the human voice
The first half gave us orchestra alone, beginning with the
Tchaikovsky symphony. Completed in 1878, it’s a big, brassy,
sometimes capricious work that nevertheless inspired the New
York Post reviewer, at its 1890 U.S. premiere, to term
it “one of the most . . . semi-barbaric compositions ever
heard in this city.”
Today it’s a work in danger of being overplayed, but ASO music
director David Alan Miller made the most of its “barbarism”
even as he satisfied the work’s more tender aspects. Like
any good symphonic work, the piece is a journey, heralded
by what the composer termed the call of Fate, realized in
the brass section’s dotted-note anthem.
From there it’s an emotional roller coaster. Themes of great
bombast melt into themes of aching sweetness, with supporting
shifts of orchestral texture. Miller kept the dynamic balance
in good accord, always a challenge in the Palace, a theater
that eats sound, and deftly shaped the more lyric phrases
with subtle shifts of tempo.
The humor of the piece shone through as well, from the contrasts
in the outer movements to the almost silly nature of the scherzo.
It’s a symphony that should knock you out of your seat and,
in a more giving hall, I’m sure it would have done so.
You have a choice, when seeking recordings of Borodin’s Polovetsian
Dances, of hearing it with or without chorus. Voices are
part of the opera Prince Igor, from which the Dances
derive, and a live performance reminds us how much richer
the work becomes with them.
Although it’s not a choral showcase—they’re relegated to the
role of background singers here—Albany Pro Musica brought
a richness of sound that’s a testament to over 25 years of
experience, under the direction of its founder, David Griggs-Janower.
His high standards have ensured that the group is consistently
polished and entertaining.
The Polovetsian Dances are exciting and familiar (they
supplied tunes for Kismet), but it was the following
work, the Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky’s opera Boris
Godunov, that proved most emotionally compelling. For
one thing, it’s a dramatic work teeming with human conflict.
Boris is fêted by the chorus as he ascends his bloody throne;
he then offers an aria expressing his doubt and foreshadowing
his tumultuous downfall. For another, we had the marvelous
bass-baritone Keith Kibler making a brief appearance as Boris.
Kibler has sung works by Verdi and Torke with the ASO, and
is thus popular with the audience. His robust, intense performance
only reinforced that feeling.
Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture begins with a lyric chant
in the cellos and violas. Some 40 years ago, Igor Buketoff
substituted chorus for strings, adding the chorus again at
the finale. It gives it a dramatic symmetry, and the opening
song becomes a stirring launching point for the battle that
follows, culminating, of course, in the well-known roar of
cannon, bells and drums.
Miller opened the concert with a memorial salute to Julius
Hegyi, longtime ASO music director who died at the beginning
of the year. The orchestra played the lovely adagio from Elgar’s
Enigma Variations, the variation saluting not only
Elgar’s best friend but also the slow movements of Beethoven’s
symphonies—a fitting tribute to a much-loved conductor.