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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