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Friday, 25 October 2013 12:00

Symphony Preview: Story time

Peter Oundjian Peter Oundjian / Sian Richards
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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This weekend at Powell Hall it's a classic example of musical storytelling, a cocky, nose-thumbing piano concerto by a musical wise guy in his 20s, and a bit of orchestral delirium.

The storytelling comes from the pen of Nikolay Rimski-Korsakov (1844-1908), one of the great Russian romantic masters and a genius at orchestration. He aggressively promoted Russian nationalism in his music, emphasizing folk and Middle Eastern/Oriental influences. All of those elements on on display in his 1888 symphonic suite "Scheherazade", inspired by episodes in the "One Thousand and One Nights" (a.k.a. "The Arabian Nights"). It's almost certainly his most popular work and a favorite of audiences around the world.

As well it should be. This is music that conjures up striking images: the imperious Sultan, the sensual Scheherazade, Sinbad's ship, the stormy sea, the festival at Baghdad—it's a veritable widescreen extravaganza. There are also plenty of solo passages that will give individual members of the orchestra a chance to show off. Concertmaster David Halen has an especially prominent role to play as the voice of Scheherazade. It's tremendously entertaining stuff when done well.

Also tremendously entertaining is the "Piano Concerto No. 1", written by the 27-year-old Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) in 1933 and first performed by him with the Leningrad Philharmonic in October of that year. It's written for a small orchestra (strings plus one very prominent trumpet) and manages to combine elements of both the Baroque and Classical periods with sounds that would not be out of place in the score of a silent film comedy. “Shostakovich wrote this when he was in his late 20s," notes Principal Trumpet Karin Bliznik (who will be playing the trumpet part his weekend) in the symphony program book. "He used to play piano accompaniment to silent movies. You can imagine some Charlie Chaplin or Keystone Kops slapstick for this piece.”

The concert opens with local premiere of three dance episodes from the 1995 chamber opera "Powder Her Face" by British composer Thomas Adès (1971- ). The opera is based on the life of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll (1912-1993) , whose elegant and fashionable life took a bizarre turn after a near-fatal fall down an elevator shaft in 1943. She emerged from the ordeal with no sense of smell or taste and a voracious sexual appetite—a great deal of which was on display in the notorious 1963 divorce trial that ended her marriage to Ian Douglas Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll. A lavish lifestyle and bad investments eventually led to a penniless death but (to quote a Tom Lehrer lyric about a very different historical figure) "the body that reached her embalmer / was one that had known how to live."

I've never seen the opera (which includes, according to a review of the original production by Alex Ross was pretty explicit stuff) or heard these selections, so I'll take the lazy way out and quote the description from Paul Schiavo's program notes: "Dance rhythms inform each of the three movements that comprise this work. First comes an overture suggesting tango, foxtrot, and other steps being attempted in an inebriated state, with interjections of mocking laughter. The ensuing waltz has a music-box delicacy about it. But its mechanism seems flawed, the rhythms continually twitching or hiccupping or otherwise going awry. Similar rhythmic dislocations mark the finale, where Adès’s superimposition of figures moving at different speeds seems at once playful and disturbing in a fever-dream sort of way."

It does sound like good company for the Shostakovich, doesn't it?

Performances are Friday and Saturday, October 25 and 26, at 8 PM at Powell Hall. The orchestra will be conducted by Peter Oundjian with Stewart Goodyear at the piano. For more information:

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