Down to a Sunless Sea

Academy Festival Orchestra, conducted by Pavel Klinichev. At the Lobero Theatre, Saturday, August 12.

Reviewed by Gerald Carpenter

Perhaps I am guilty of hyperbole, calling this concert “the best.” After all, this has been an extraordinary season of concerts at the Music Academy, and an extraordinary manifestation of the Festival Orchestra in particular. But there was something about this concert that seized me by the lapels and gave me a teeth-rattling shake, and I will not soon forget the effect that it has had on me.

The program consisted of three works by Russian composers, two composed under the tsars by Peter Tchaikovsky — Festival Coronation March and Capriccio italien, Opus 45 — and one during Stalin’s reign of terror by Sergei Prokofiev, the Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Opus 100. They opened with the Tchaikovsky and closed with Prokofiev.

The March was composed for the coronation of Tsar Alexander III, who assumed the throne in 1881 when his father was assassinated, and reigned until 1894. Tchaikovsky thought the work “noisy but bad,” and in truth it is no masterpiece, but the orchestra made it jaunty and likable. The Capriccio is a quintessential potboiler, colorful to the point of gaudiness and exciting to the point of vulgarity, yet overall so gorgeously innocent that it is completely irresistible. It made an ideal showcase for this ideal orchestra — as Klinichev made an ideal conductor — and they all played it with superb conviction. But it was the Prokofiev that put the evening over the line into immortality. From the first startlingly enunciated rumble in the basses the performance had my complete attention. (As luck would have it, I was standing right next to the bass-meister Nico Abondolo, who doubled my appreciation by murmuring: (1) That Prokofiev and Shostakovich often broke with tradition and wrote independent bass lines; and (2) That this year’s bass section was exceptionally fine, disciplined, and focused.)

I have known and loved this work for 40 years, without quite grasping its measureless profundity, its infinite sorrow. It is a danse macabre for the 19th century, one might even say for Western civilization. Prokofiev, late in bringing his entire genius to bear on the symphonic form — having already written ballets to rival Stravinsky and concertos to challenge Rachmaninov — served notice on the Pantheon to save him a spot. The basses indeed, and the violins, and the brass, and the whole marvelous young crew came together in a performance that inspired awe and ecstasy. Not bad, for closers.

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