“This is extremely sarcastic, cynical music,” conductor Barbara Yahr explained, introducing the selections from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije suite that she’d chosen to open the Greenwich Village Orchestra‘s concert last night. “Particularly apt for our time, I think,”she added, alluding to the upcoming events this Tuesday. The crowd chuckled knowingly. Beyond simply bringing the music to life, Yahr usually has a way of focusing on its most relevant aspects.
The five segments she’d chosen illustrate something completely different: the ineptitude of of the Soviet army and its bureaucracy. The joke is that the officer in the suite’s title doesn’t officially exist, and his eventual death has to be covered up: otherwise, there would be paperwork to deal with, and who really wants to fill out a death certificate, anyway? Yet as broad as the satire is, the music came across as surprisingly subtle – other than a completely over-the-top passage from the high woodwinds, portraying the army as a ragtag little regiment that can barely keep up with itself. Which was a stretch for this ensemble: ragtag is not their thing. Sleekness and formidability are more like it.
Both of which came to the forefront during the phony pageantry that followed: taken out of context, absent a few funny cadenzas from the trumpets and a little little over-the-top squonkiness from the bass trombone, the music almost could have passed for a particularly sophisticated soundtrack to a Thanksgiving parade making its way down Central Park West. Then there’s that silly, famous sleigh ride scene, as pointillistically precise and deadpan funny as it could have been.
Next on the program was a similar mini-suite taken from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Yahr introduced the selections as a sort of synopsis of the plot. Does a more venomously emveloping introduction – illustrating the bad blood between the Montagues and the Capulets – or a more lushly sensual interlude – the two lovers on the balcony – exist in classical music? Maybe not. Yahr had the ensemble working every inch of the sonic picture, from top to bottom, as she typically does.
Although she did just the opposite with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which came across as lush and luscious rather than static. A lot of orchestras play it like an early classical piece, or like chamber pop: piano backed by a string section, more or less. But it’s actually the opposite of that, and Yahr seized the opportunity to meet the towering, glittering angst that soloist Imri Talgam was channeling, from his first harrowing, haggard steps out of the shadows. As stormy as the symphonic arrangement is, most of it is pretty straightforward and simple, as opposed to the rapidfire virtuosity required of any pianist with the nerve to tackle it in public.
There’s a slithery cascade downward early in the second movement where the composer basically says, “OK, pity party is over, it’s time to party for real.” If you know the piece, you know the backstory: it’s as good advertising for the benefits of therapy as anyone has ever written. Basically, Rachmaninoff’s therapist told him, “Repeat after me, ‘I’m gonna write something great!’” And a pretty full house got to revel in that epic sweep and rewarded both orchestra and soloist with several standing ovations.
The concerto is about being hurt – to the quick, to the core – and eventually being pulled off the ledge. Or maybe pulling oneself off the ledge. Which goes a long way in explaining its perennial appeal. Talgam played the most poignant passages with an intuitive restraint, often with a genuine tenderness, acutely attuned to context. As a young composer, Rachmaninoff was regarded as erratic, if capable of moments of brilliance; the dismissive critical reaction to his Tschaikovsky-esque First Symphony, which is actually a decent if derivative piece of music, crushed him. This was his big comeback, after which there was no looking back for the man many consider to be the greatest classical pianist of all time and the unrivalled king of Russian Romanticism. Talgam kept a steely focus through one challenging stampede and cadenza after another while Yahr kept the orchestra front and center in tandem with the piano, a welcome and ultimately exhilarating change from how this piece is so frequently performed.
The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next concert is their annual family show December 4 at 3 PM at Washington Irving HS Auditorium, 17th St. and Irving Place featuring some of the talented youngsters from the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. Suggested donation is $20/$10 stud/srs, reception to follow.