Orchestra tackles Russian works

Repertoire: The Annapolis Symphony will delve into Russia's musical tradition with its concerts this weekend.

February 17, 2000|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Now things get really interesting. Annapolis Symphony conductor Leslie B. Dunner has stuck like glue to the standard Germanic symphonic repertoire for most of his early tenure with the orchestra.

With this weekend's concerts at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, he ventures off the beaten path into the heart of Mother Russia's musical tradition, an idiom that engages his aesthetic sensibilities to the fullest.

Dunner, who has been studying Russian in anticipation of concerts he'll conduct in St. Petersburg this season, has programmed unfamiliar works by three of Russia's greatest composers.

The program begins with Alexander Borodin's "In the Steppes of Central Asia," a short tone-poem full of Russian folk tunes, Oriental melodies and depictions of animal life, all interacting amid the sheer desolation of Asiatic Russia.

Nationalism was in full bloom during Borodin's lifetime, and, as with Tchaikovsky, Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov and others of his generation, Russian folk songs and other manifestations of national culture are part of the defining character of his oeuvre.

Serge Prokofieff's "Sinfonia Concertante," composed for Mstislav Rostropovich, Russia's greatest gift to the art of cello playing, provides the centerpiece for the program tomorrow and Saturday.

A work of intense contrasts ranging from supremely lyrical interludes to some of the thorniest passages imaginable, the "Sinfonia Concertante" will be performed by Julie Albers, a young U.S. cellist who made an acclaimed debut playing the Dvorak concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1998.

Closing the program will be Tchaikovsky's Third Orchestral Suite, which was one of the biggest hits of the composer's career when it was first performed in St. Petersburg on Jan. 12, 1885.

"Never before have I experienced a triumph of this order," Tchaikovsky wrote. It is a lovely work boasting an elegiac opening, a ripping tarantella in movement three, and possibly the finest set of variations Tchaikovsky ever composed as a conclusion.

It is a favorite of mine for two main reasons. First, it shows Tchaikovsky in a warm, lighthearted mood that contrasts markedly with the stormy emotionalism that defines so much of his writing. How wonderful to share uninhibited joy with him, given the dark clouds that hung over him through so much of his life.

Second, there is a rather snobbish tendency to dismiss Tchaikovsky's music as nothing more than hot tunes and, as critic Neville Cardus once put it, "a thrilling case of nerves." The Third Suite gives the lie to that simplistic point of view, for it is cultivated, elegant, assured music emanating from a marvelous craftsman and a formidable intellect.

Not for nothing was Mozart Peter Ilyich's greatest hero.

The Annapolis Symphony Orchestra performs at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.

Information: 410-269-1132.

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