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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013

Icy Hot Russian Classics

Solzhenitsyn’s slam-dunk at the MSO

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Very few people are equally adept at conducting and playing an instrument at the highest level of professional performance. Guest conductor/pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn proved his profound dual abilities last Saturday night with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

Solzhenitsyn was brilliant as soloist in Shostakovich’s witty and irreverent Piano Concerto No. 1, the composition of a young genius that captures in-your-face defiance of convention. Solzhenitsyn’s icy hot playing matched the character of this music, a veneer of detached virtuoso coolness over biting sarcasm, full of parody. Athletic finger technique and a range of keyboard colors, combined with dramatic musical intentions, conjured gusto and style. It’s hard to imagine a better performance.

The concerto has a neo-baroque spirit, scored for strings and solo trumpet, almost equal with the piano in importance. A move last fall made former MSO principal trumpet Mark Niehaus president and executive director of the orchestra, by all accounts a happy step forward for the organization. However, Niehaus displayed what we are missing by playing with gorgeous tone, round or edgy, depending on the context, and lively phrasing. This trumpet part is sometimes wisecrack commentary. I got the jokes.

Classical repertory, which usually seems so firmly established, definitely changes over time. The worldwide rise in performances of music by Shostakovich in recent decades has had an illogical effect: the music of Sergei Prokofiev seems to be performed less frequently than it once was. I don’t think it’s a lack of quality or appeal of Prokofiev’s works, but somehow an unstated notion that places the two great Soviet era composers against one another in vying for concert programming.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 6 rarely comes around, and that is an audience’s loss. It is colorful, poignant, bold, intimate and fascinating. The MSO typically rises to a challenging unfamiliar work, and that was the case here. Solzhenitsyn coaxed the best playing of the season from any guest conductor, creating sharply drawn statements, allowing this mysterious but captivating music to fully emerge. He also led a slam-dunk account of the brief Baba-Yaga by Anatoly Liadov, a little bit of flashy, old-fashioned fun.