Yesterday afternoon’s Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra concert at St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church featured three works by Russian composers. The guest conductor was Mark Cerri, an accomplished horn player and conductor who teaches at the Long Island Conservatory, and the featured soloist was French horn virtuoso W. Marshall Sealy (photo). The program opened with the overture to the opera Ruslan and Ludmilla, by Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857), considered the first great Russian classical composer, and a major influence on later nineteenth century composers such as Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. The overture is a very lively piece that brought to mind a troika galloping through the snow, and which the orchestra, under Maestro Cerri’s baton, performed with crisp precision.
Reinhold Glière (1875-1956) began his musical career before the 1917 revolution, but prospered under the Soviet regime. He did so by adhering to the romantic style that characterized Russian music of the late nineteenth century. Ironically, the Communists were conservative in artistic matters, considering the radical innovations in music, drama, literature and the visual arts that were taking place early in the past century to be exemplary of bourgeois decadence. Glière’s Horn Concerto, written and first performed in 1951, features lush melodic lines with undertones of Slavic “soul”. Near the end of the long first allegro movement, Mr. Sealy played a cadenza, based on the one performed by the Russian horn virtuoso Valery Palenkh at the Concerto’s premiere performance, that amply demonstrated both the full range of the horn’s dynamics and Mr. Sealy’s skill. When I spoke with him at the reception following the concert, I said that I was impressed by how he demonstrated a wide range of sounds, going from the clarion calls usually associated with that instrument to “growls and buzzes”. He chuckled, and said that he had “personalized” the cadenza a bit. Considering that Mr. Sealy has played jazz as well as classical music–for example, with Les Misérables Brass Band–improvisation would seem to be part of his toolkit.
The concert concluded with the Fifth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), considered the greatest Russian composer of the Soviet era, and, indeed, one of the greatest composers of the past century. Unlike Glière, Shostakovich had a difficult and sometimes hostile relationship with the Communist authorities, and his music was occasionally banned. Although written in 1937, fourteen years before Glière’s Horn Concerto, Shostakovich’s Fifth seems much more modern. The program notes speculate on whether the music was meant to satisfy the authorities or was “subversive”. Each of the four movements features an abrupt transition from a pleasantly lively or soothing melodic line to a violent segment marked by discordance and clashing percussion. This may have been the composer’s reaction to the times, which were turbulent in the Soviet Union. Shostakovich had been denounced during the previous year, and Stalin’s great purges began during 1937. Nevertheless, the Fifth symphony, because of its relatively conservative style compared to his immediately previous works, was not condemned by the authorities. This is a long and difficult piece and, despite what to my ears seemed a couple of slight miscues, the orchestra performed it admirably.
The Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra will return to St. Ann & the Holy Trinity, at Clinton and Montague streets, on Sunday, April 10, at 3:00 p.m., for a joint performance with the Grace and Spiritus Chorale featuring works by Respighi, Verdi, Bizet, and Puccini.
Photo: C. Scales for BHB