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PHOTO: They came to sing: Albany Pro Musica.

Russian Delights

By B.A. Nilsson

Albany Symphony Orchestra, Albany Pro Musica

Palace Theatre, Jan. 20

 

 

A 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 is included.

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.

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