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Chilling intensity: Lucille Beers.

Russian Rhapsody
By B.A. Nilsson

Albany Symphony Orchestra
Albany Pro Musica
Palace Theatre, Jan. 17

Massing the orchestra with a chorus of well over a hundred voices is a special event that calls for a special piece of music. To the delight of a packed house, that piece was Prokofiev’s cantata Alexander Nevsky, a stirring— it’s almost too stirring—ode to the 13th-century Russian hero originally written to accompany the 1938 film by Sergei Eisenstein.

Fortunately for us, Prokofiev arranged the choicest segments into a seven- movement stand-alone work.

Augmenting Albany Pro Musica’s ranks was effective: This piece needs at times to sound like the heavens are a-thundering. Although written (and usually recorded) in Russian, we had to make do with an English version. After all my railing against the conceit of presenting opera in foreign languages (which destroys the theatrical experience), it feels odd to cavil about hearing Prokofiev in English. But this is a concert work, and it’s easy enough to determine what’s being sung with good program notes supplied.

But let me rally to the Pro Musica’s defense. This was a big event, a big piece, with a limited number of rehearsals. Russian is a difficult language to learn to sing, so I’m just as happy that they chose to spend the time working to sing to their usual lofty standard. The chorus was tight and focused; thunderous in the call to arms “Arise, Ye Russian People,” inspiring in the anthemic “Battle on the Ice” section.

Mezzo-Soprano Lucille Beers sang for a mere five minutes, but what an intense experience! “Field of the Dead” describes a scene of carnage as a Russian girl searches for her lover and pledges to love only the kind of hero who would die in battle. Not the kind of sentiment that plays well when our own country has lost over 500 of its people in a pointless war, but Beers was absolutely convincing—chilling, even—in her low-voiced lament.

Then there was the orchestra. Prokofiev’s music doesn’t suffer anything less than superior playing, and the group, under David Alan Miller’s deft direction, met the challenges easily. The music begins with a creepy, atmospheric tremolo that heralds a sense of despair underlying the whole piece. Even the moments of triumph seem mournful, which may be what makes it sound Russian to our ears.

Every section got a workout. Percussion were busy throughout, and the brass, not surprisingly, got to wail in the battle scenes. (That’s also where you can hear a big influence on film composer Danny Elfman.) The coloring of the final section, “Alexander’s Entry into Pskov,” was especially well written and well performed, with bells and sopranos helping the buildup to the big finish.

It’s not the job of a critic to review a piece as tried and true as Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. I should note, however, that I thought it wise to take a few years off from those last three symphonies of his, the fourth through sixth. Time for a break, I figured, when I found myself growing impatient with the heart-on-the-sleeve emotions and endless repetitions.

Here it all was, as in-your-face as ever, starting with the eight-note motif that recurs throughout the work’s four movements, offset briefly by a second theme that seems upbeat thanks to a dotted-note figure.

The second movement presents a gorgeous theme played by solo horn (and mined, if I’m not mistaken, by bandleader Freddie Martin in his endless quest for Tchaikovsky-based pop songs) and soon echoed in the winds, which rose impressively to the many tasks this piece presented. And there’s a moment in the second movement when the double-bass section really digs in for a sound that you’ll never hear reproduced with this much bite on a recording. This is why you go to concerts.

If Prokofiev is Elfman’s antecedent, then Tchaikovsky is the well from which John Williams draws. Unlike Elfman, however, he never forged his own compositional identity.

In any event, Miller’s way with this symphony almost made a believer of me. It’s no fault of the conductor’s that the composer can’t seem to let go of a melody (at least the long-winded Dvorák threw in new, snappy tunes from time to time). The orchestra sounded great in this crowd-pleasing warhorse, and I couldn’t help but share their enthusiasm by the end of it.

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