I doubt I was the only one who felt that way Friday night at Music Hall. It took only a few bars into guest artist Simon Trpčeski’s performance with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to realize that this was to be something different, not just a Valentine, as pre-concert publicity would have it. On the podium was the very capable guest conductor Mark Wigglesworth.
Paired with the Symphony No. 10 by Dmitri Shostakovich, it made for one of the finest CSO concerts in recent memory.
All the drama was there in Trpčeski’s opening flourishes in the Grieg. A native of Macedonia in his CSO debut, he sounded the subordinate theme gently and reflectively (qualities not always associated with this work). His performance of the cadenza had one scanning the CSO to see if someone else were playing along with him -- perhaps a stray woodwind -- so magical were his silken tones.
The second movement (Adagio) again highlighted Trpčeski’s touch, which was exquisitely light, with Wigglesworth drawing the same quality from the CSO. Ensemble with the CSO was pinpoint throughout, with every cadence and phrase ending dovetailed perfectly.
The finale summed up these impressions, from the folk-like beginning to the sweeping conclusion, which burst bright as a sunrise over the hall.
Trpčeski, 33, encored simply, but affectingly, with a waltz from Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, naïve and charming to its softly tapped conclusion.
British conductor Wigglesworth, 49, has made a project of recording the complete Shostakovich symphonies (for the Swedish label BIS, and if this performance with the CSO, can serve as an example, one may wish to acquire the set). Conducting entirely from memory, he had every detail at his fingertips, and he inspired the CSO to share his vision. It was a powerful vision -- and a painful one -- a virtual page out of 20th-century history.
In his Tenth Symphony, Shostakovich wrote of life in the Soviet Union under dictator Josef Stalin, Shostakovich’s life in particular, which was one of practicing his art under the constant shadow of condemnation, if not liquidation. (Come at 7 p.m. for tonight’s repeat to hear CSO associate conductor Robert Trevino’s penetrating analysis of the work.) The Symphony was premiered in December, 1953, the same year as Stalin’s death (in March), and is thought to have been written in response.
Acting principal clarinetist Jonathan Gunn set the tone with his faraway, forlorn solo at the opening of the first movement. The scene unfolded to searing effect, with stinging strings and keening bassoon solos, up to and including Joan Vorhees’ touching piccolo solo at the end.
The second movement, a portrait of Stalin – or any dictator or government that rides roughshod over its people – was blistering, with raw, ugly strings and painful percussion. The violins, by contrast, sounded the plaintive theme of the third movement (Allegretto) with something like despair, as Shostakovich’s “motto” theme* tried to make its way. Principal French hornist Elizabeth Freimuth cast the glow of redemption over it all with her soaring motif, thought to be a motto for Elmira Nazirova, a student and love interest of the composer.** A struggle ensued between the dictatorial forces and the beleaguered composer, with unison horns on the Elmira motif taking his side at one point. But who won? Associate concertmaster Rebecca Culnan’s wan little solo and Vorhees’ lone piccolo at the end spelled defeat.
Principal oboist Dwight Parry began the finale with a heartfelt solo, and the violins spun a merry little tune, but the collisions continued. There was lots of jeering by the bassoon (kudos to principal bassoonist William Winstead throughout the Symphony) and jarring by just about everyone against the Shostakovich theme, but the point was made: he did not change. He (and his music) remained steadfast to the end, which was boffo and thrilling to the max.
This is a concert you will not want to miss. If you weren’t there, tickets are available by calling (513) 381-3300, also at www.cincinnatisymphony.org and the Music Hall box office.
* In German musical notation, D, E-flat (for S), C, B-natural (for H)
** In mixed German and French notation, E, L(a), Mi, R(e), A.