Madly frolicking Ukrainian witches, sensuous Oriental dances, plus the incredible Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 – music director Steven Byess and his energized TSO musicians pulled out all the stops to give their packed-house audience an extraordinary evening of Russian-themed sonic brilliance.
Things quickly got underway with 19th-century Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s seasonally-appropriate dance of spooky horror, “Night on Bald Mountain.” Neglected during the composer’s lifetime, it was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (another Russian musical great) who ultimately turned Mussorgsky’s macabre tone poem into the spectacular orchestral showpiece we usually hear today. In 1940, Walt Disney featured its wildly colorfully music in his beloved film classic, “Fantasia.”
Depicting witches ceremonially cavorting on an eerie Ukrainian mountaintop at midnight, “Bald Mountain’s” wild musical mayhem received a stellar performance in Tupelo. Obviously determined to make opening night unforgettably dazzling, Byess and the TSO interpreted Mussorgsky’s savage rhythms and wailing melodies with astonishing force. One listener thoroughly blown away by the TSO’s fiery music-making was well-known Tupelo filmmaker Rex Harsin. During intermission he told me “There’s one word you’ve got to use in describing ‘Bald Mountain,’ and that’s ‘intoxicating.’” Well here it is, Rex, “Intoxicating” – and was it ever!
Alexander Borodin’s lively and exotic “Polovtsian Dances” came next.
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra in C minor occupied the evening’s second half. Debuted in Moscow more than 100 years ago, “Rach-2” (as it’s widely known) now tracks near the top of virtually every chart devoted to worldwide classical favorites. You’ve got to be either very foolish or very good even to imagine yourself capable of performing this fiendishly difficult 32-minute spellbinder in public. At times, the score is almost totally black with lightning-fast notes.
Joining the TSO in performing Rach-2 last Saturday was award-winning Italian pianist Roberto Plano, who quickly showed he had that rare blend of dazzling technique and lyrical musicianship indispensable for breathing life into Rachmaninoff’s passionately Romantic phrases.
Charmingly modest as he seated himself before the TSO’s gleaming black Steinway, Plano was soon roaring like a lion as the concerto’s immensely powerful first movement rhythmically unfolded in all its glistening multihued turbulence. Likewise in the remaining two movements, Plano shared a sense of intense musical camaraderie with orchestra and instrumental soloists – especially with flute and clarinet in the dreamy Adagio – that made Rach-2’s dynamically explosive grand finale particularly joyful and incandescent.
In addition to this exciting performance however, the night’s artist also had an unusual musical extra up his sleeve. Returning onstage for further bows, Plano then said he wanted to “relax,” take off his tailcoat, and play “something I put together just for Tupelo.” So what does a personable European piano virtuoso…star of great symphony halls…winner of the coveted Cleveland Competition, etc., choose to offer an admiring Tupelo audience?
Oh yes! Plano gave us an Elvis medley (“Can’t Help Falling in Love with You,” “Love Me Tender,” “Now or Never,” plus two others) performed with the kind of effortless pizzazz and masterful simplicity only truly great artists can effectively pull off. The King would doubtless have been delighted – and on this happy note did the TSO kick off its 41st season of bringing great symphonic music to the people of Northeast Mississippi.