Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, May 15, 2001

Feltsman impressive
with the symphony

Vladimir Feltsman performs with the Honolulu Symphony: Repeats 7:30 p.m. today at Blaisdell Concert Hall. Tickets $15 to $55. Call 792-2000.

Review by Ruth Bingham
Special to the Star-Bulletin

Music is a political act, but that is easy to forget when the music is safely tucked away in the past. Twentieth-century Russian music in particular evokes politics: it is hard not to wonder what impact the Soviet's "social realism" doctrine had.

On Mother's Day, Maestro Samuel Wong and the Honolulu Symphony presented Russian composers Prokofiev and Shostakovich, both of whom lived and worked in the USSR under the Soviet system, and soloist Vladimir Feltsman, who emigrated to the United States in 1987. The three pieces were a study in contrasts: Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Lieutenant Kije Suite, and Shostakovich's last symphony, No. 15.

Prokofiev's Piano Concerto, which he performed for his conservatory degree in composition and piano performance, revealed the young Prokofiev as a brash, in-your-face "bad boy," strutting his stuff and breaking all the rules, almost daring his professors to deny his abundant talent.

Like Tchaikovsky with his first piano concerto, Prokofiev reveled in Russia's pyrotechnic piano technique, using the orchestra largely as accompaniment. But this first piano concerto was more than youthful show; it also showcased who Prokofiev would become: an innovative, lyrical and thoroughly Russian composer.

Feltsman performed with the casual ease of familiarity, tossing off difficult passages as Prokofiev himself might have. Feltsman's obvious affinity for the piece and the rapport between him and Wong helped them navigate smoothly through Prokofiev's abrupt shifts in mood and gradual tempo changes. It was an impressive performance, technically and musically. When Feltsman leapt from his stool on the final chord, the audience erupted into a standing ovation.

Feltsman's encore, a Liszt transcription of Schumann's song Widmung, was of a wildly popular 19th-century style meant to impress the masses and make the ladies faint. Basically, the style consisted of taking a familiar melody and throwing notes at it -- the more, the better. In other words, showy but vapid.

Wong opened the concert with the Kije Suite, composed for a 1933 film.

Middle aged and living in Soviet Russia by then, Prokofiev was no longer a rebellious youth: the Suite exhibited prime social realism style: simple forms, open textures and Russian folk traits.

Prokofiev used the orchestra as a community of solo voices. Overall, the Suite seemed to have had the least rehearsal time, which showed in some uneven entrances and phasing between parts, but its witty character and lively solos shone, as in Michael Zonshine's offstage trumpet and Laurie Lake's military piccolo.

Shostakovich's Symphony No. 15, composed in 1971, was a gamble on Wong's part: long and unfamiliar, it is the kind of work many audiences avoid.

But it is the product of that rare creature: a 20th-century master symphonist. It is beautifully constructed, without a dull moment anywhere in its 45-plus minutes.

Brass and percussion provided much of the excitement in a wonderful display of bravura and finesse, and excellent solos abounded: Susan McGinn (flute), Kirby Nunez (string bass), Gregory Dubay (cello) and Scott Anderson (clarinet). The performance was the Honolulu Symphony at its best.

Interpreting Shostakovich's music, whether programmatic or absolute, is tricky: to perform it well, conductors must decide what they think it means, all the while accepting that they could be wrong.

Never free to say what he thought or felt, Shostakovich often spoke in riddles: do you believe the official version, or read between the lines?

One interviewer asked Shostakovich if all that percussion portrayed a toy shop. Shostakovich said it did, but must have wondered if the world were deaf, that it could not tell from the music what it was saying.

In this symphony, Shostakovich incorporated numerous musical quotations -- Rossini's William Tell and Wagner's Tristan und Isolde most prominently -- but what do they mean? According to Wong, "These are political toys. ... He's really thumbing his nose at the whole century. There are a lot of inside jokes."

We can only guess at what those jokes mean and that is probably one of the saddest legacies of social realism.

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