The unseasonably warm weather on Saturday brought out the symphony’s audience in their summer clothes, appropriate attire for the first piece of the evening-Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. It was written for the Russian festival of St. John’s Night, which takes place in late June and depicts a witches’ Sabbath, complete with demonic dancing and an appearance by Satan himself. Night is a swirling, crashing, shrieking delight, full of the most unearthly sounds but all somehow blended into an acceptably musical form, perhaps in part due to the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, who edited the piece for Mussorgsky.
The evening’s soloist was pianist Lilya Zilberstein, who took the stage for the evening’s second piece, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. This is one of the most familiar and beloved works in all of Russian Romanticism, and Zilberstein’s interpretation, which brought out the meaning of every variation, was greeted with a powerful standing ovation. Maestro Kabaretti has honed this orchestra’s sound and sense of ensemble to a place where the effect in such grand and dramatic music is one of sweetness and unity, rather than bluster and blare. Rachmaninoff may have gained a reputation for schmaltz, but his ability to move an audience with genuine passion can be reawakened at the touch of a truly gifted pianist, and Zilberstein proved herself to be very much in the Russian tradition.
The second half of the concert was devoted to one of the most demanding symphonies in the repertoire, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 46. Written at the height of Tchaikovsky’s period of mental instability, the work opens in full cry, with the brass section blasting out a fanfare that then recurs throughout the epic work, which lasts 45 minutes. Tchaikovsky plays every trick in the composer’s book, sailing through movements redolent of regret and sorrow only to be stirred to new life by martial music and the liveliness of a folk festival. Few symphonies cover as much ground, or give such a wonderful opportunity to the orchestra to show how far they have progressed under their still new conductor.