Albany Symphony: two Russian composers

Hannah Kendall

Sergei Prokofiev
Sergei Prokofiev, c. 1918

The Albany Symphony held a concert at the Palace Theatre in the city on February 12, featuring two Russian composers. My friend Lee was supposed to go, but he and his spouse were out of town. He gave us their tickets, and my wife and I went in their stead. We attended the pre-concert talk with conductor David Alan Miller and piano soloist Wei Luo.

The first piece was the 10-minute piece The Spark Catchers by the non-Russian Hannah Kendall (b. 1984). It was inspired by Lemn Sissay’s poem of the same name. It concerned the Bow Matchwomen’s Strike in East London of the late 1880s. Kendall was struck by the linguistic parallel of striking a match and a worker cessation.

The Spark Catchers as performed by Chineke! Orchestra c. 2020

This was followed by the Concerto for Piano No. 3 by Sergei  (1891-1953) from 1921. In the notes, the initial section shows “everything a pianist is done: cross-handed work… crashing chords, reaches to both ends of the keyboard and staccato playing.” No wonder Wei Luo, dressed in a very shiny red outfit, presumably for Valentine’s Day weekend, got an ovation after only the first movement.

Prokofiev died the same day as Joseph Stalin, two days before I was born. Thus the news of the composer’s death was somewhat muted in the Soviet press. Or maybe it was that the Communist Party had censured his work in 1948, seeking a “new style,” whatever that means. Possibly they thought it was his beautiful melodies that had “become distorted, and conventional tonality gives way to harmonic dissonance.”

Piano Concerto No. 3. Martha Argerich at the Singapore International Piano Festival 2018

And tell Tchaikovsky the news

Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was one of the first composers whose work I could identify, first the 1812 overture, then the Nutcracker. I’m sure I have at least one recording of his Symphony No. 6, “Pathetique.” I did not know that he died nine days after the symphony’s debut, which the composer conducted.

His brother Modest blamed Pytor’s death on the composer drinking unboiled water during a cholera epidemic. But David Alan Miller doesn’t buy it. Was it suicide? The man was old before his time.

The second movement is in the unusual 5/4 meter. The theme of the third movement appears very early and it is very familiar to me. But doesn’t reach its full vigor until relatively near the end. It sounds like the end of the piece, and many patrons at ASO applauded. No, there is a fourth, slow movement that “fades away into nothingness.”

Pathetique, Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with Yuri Temirkanov, conductor. Recorded in 1990

Normal-ish: Proctors, ASO, choir

No buffoon bassoon

ProctorsIn the past month, I had several days that I considered normal-ish. Familiar, though with a twist.

Th, 12/9: I went to the Proctors Theatre in nearby Schenectady. I’ve been going there to see for years to see touring musicals. Often I’ve had season tickets for the Thursday matinee because it’s the least expensive option. Indeed, I made that choice way back in the spring of 2019 for the 2019-2020 run. I saw three shows. and then…

I don’t even remember when Summer: The Donna Summer Story was supposed to take place initially, but I think it was rescheduled at least twice because of COVID. FINALLY, I got to take the bus to the old vaudeville venue. First, I was asked for my vaccine card, which I had on my phone. Then I could pick up my ticket at the will call.

As for the show itself, there were actually three women playing the disco queen at various stages of her life. One also played Donna’s mother and another Donna’s daughter. Oddly enough, this was not confusing. And all of them were very good.

I wasn’t a huge disco fan. But as I wrote about her three years ago, I had a lot of respect for Donna Summer: her look and especially her voice.

On The Radio

But as this review in the Chicago Tribune noted of the tour: “It is a very rough book.” Yeah, that was it. The show “carelessly abandon[s] most of its scenes in mid-flow for self-serving monologues. The story veers “back and forth between the personal and the professional” in an uneasy manner. The reviewer thinks those “behind-the-music-with-the-guys-in-suits stuff… so rarely works in these kinds of shows.” I’ve seen some that do work – Beautiful, for one – but this was not one of them.

This I didn’t remember: “Summer, of course, upset a lot of her gay fans with a homophobic remark at a Cleveland concert, at the height of the AIDS crisis to boot.” The story monologue disowning her previous statement was astonishingly clunky.

Ragnarok

Sa 12/11: Likewise, it was the first visit to the Albany Symphony Orchestra at the Palace Theatre, under the direction of David Alan Miller, since COVID. A church friend had tickets he could not use. Yes, proof of COVID vaccinations was needed.

The first piece was Don Juan by Richard Strauss. as the show notes suggest: Strauss “makes us see from the get-go the bravado of this libertine.”

The second and third pieces, one before the intermission and one after, were written by Christopher Rouse (1949-2019). The ASO, which Rouse visited frequently, was to record the compositions the following day.

From the composer’s notes about Heimdall’s Trumpet: his “blasts on his trumpet announce the onset of Ragnarok, the Norse equivalent of Armageddon.” He rightly notes “the title… refers properly to the finale… in a very short orchestral fortissimo outburst…” And it was so!  Eric Berlin was the fine soloist.

Rouse’s bassoon concerto, with the virtuoso Peter Kolkay was a lot more fun, with Kolkay sometimes fading out, yet the orchestra’s other bassoons filling in. It was not buffoonish, though. Comedy is difficult to explain.

Finally, excerpts from The Nutcracker, not just the suite but about a third of the whole ballet.

Church

Su 12/12: Our choir has been rehearsing since October, with everyone with at least two shots. But the group, other than the section leaders, haven’t sung. That is until 11/27 when half the choir got to sing, masked. And no forte, because we’ve read that it is the volume of singing, or speaking, that has the greater chance to spread infection.

My half got to sing on 12/12. It was a little difficult because, being spread out, it was hard to hear the others in the bass section, let alone the other parts.

That said, it was GLORIOUS to be in the choir loft again. I’m not saying I got a little verklempt, but…

So normal-ish. Which is good enough for now.

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