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Classical Connection review: Opening of 2022-2023 Philharmonic season

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The Fort Wayne Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Music Director Andrew Constantine, launched its 2022-23 season at the historic Embassy Theatre in downtown Fort Wayne on Oct. 8, with a mostly Russian program.

Actually, even the opening work -- the overture to Giuseppe Verdi's 1862 opera "La Forza del Destino" or "The Force of Destiny" has a "Russian connection" because it was premiered in Saint Petersburg.

There are pictures of the Italian composer, who lived from 1813 to 1901, all bundled up in heavy winter clothing, as he went to Russia to supervise preparations for the production.

It was certainly quite a change for someone used to Italy's mild Mediterranean climate.

It is interesting that Verdi's subject was actually "fate," something that also appealed to Peter Tchaikovsky, particularly when he composed his fourth and fifth symphonies.

It is hard to deal with the inevitable forces that are commonplace in our troubled world.

Verdi, however, had so many great successes with his numerous operas, most of which had memorable musical scores and often equally memorable stories and characters.

The overture to "La Forza del Destino" is a very dramatic work by itself and it includes some of the themes actually heard in the opera.

There is, to be sure, a sense of impending doom or forces beyond one's control. This overture, in particular, was a favorite of the Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957), who included it in a number of his famous NBC broadcast concerts and even featured it when he and the NBC musicians appeared in the 1943 documentary film "Hymn of the Nations."

There is considerable excitement and enthusiasm in the music, which was effectively captured in Saturday night's remarkable performance under Andrew Constantine.

There is drive and intensity in the music, which makes such great use of the brass and strings. Constantine clearly appreciated the special qualities of this music.

Verdi never composed a symphony; his specialties were operas and choral works, so his involvement with the orchestra was generally to accompany singing or, in those orchestral passages, preludes, overtures, and dance music, to set a particular mood. It is a real treat when we hear what Verdi could do with an orchestra, as well as his great understanding of the human voice, so this was a splendid way to open a new season.

Alexander Glazunov, who lived from 1865 to 1936, was a true Russian romantic composer, who was also known for teaching a number of important future composers such as Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. He remained thoroughly a romantic and was often at odds with some of his students, but he did appreciate the young Shostakovich.

Glazunov completed eight symphonies and began work on a ninth, never finishing it. He was also known for some ballet scores, notably the 1900 masterpiece "The Seasons."

Like Tchaikovsky, Glazunov wrote a symphonic ballet that is quite colorful, exciting, and very moving. Andrew Constantine chose to perform the fourth and final section of "The Seasons," which is a splendid depiction of autumn that includes some passing references to the other seasons, which he also portrays with great imagination and skill.

By the way, the full score of "The Seasons" was recorded by Glazunov himself with the Paris Symphony Orchestra in 1929, giving us a great document of his conducting abilities (even if he reportedly faltered when he conducted the premiere of Rachmaninoff's first symphony).

This performance was skillfully guided by Constantine, effectively capturing all of the various moods of the music, which go so well with the actual dancing when it is staged. We could greatly appreciate Glazunov's skills as an orchestrator, as well as gift for writing memorable melodies.

Then, to conclude the first half, Constantine conducted the 1919 ballet suite that Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) prepared from his first real masterpiece, the ballet "The Firebird." If you have ever heard the full score, especially in the memorable stereo recording that the composer made for Columbia Record, you can appreciate the greatness of the music.

His storyline is a Russian folk tale about an evil sorcerer who is defeated by a courageous young prince with the help of the Firebird -- a wondrous flying creature with magical powers. All of the music is worth hearing it. However, Stravinsky's suite, which is somewhat condensed and concise, gives us highlights of some of the best moments in this 1910 ballet.

Stravinsky had studied with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff (1844-1908) and he had learned so much from the older composer, particularly when it came to orchestration. This is very colorful and wonderful music.

We were given an exceptional performance by Constantine and the Philharmonic, particularly in the exciting Infernal Dance of Katschei (the evil sorcerer) and the finale itself. Stravinsky captures quite a contrast of the emotions and themes of the story that inspired the ballet, presented by Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) and his celebrated Ballets Russes in Paris. The Philharmonic gave us the best of "The Firebird" and it was very exciting and enjoyable.

In the second half of the concert, Constantine and the Philharmonic presented one of Tchaikovsky's beloved works, his only violin concerto (which is in D major). It was composed in 1878 and it was conceived with great feeling and understanding, particularly of the violin.

Little wonder that Tchaikovsky's violin concerto is one of the major violin concertos in the standard repertoire.

As with Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto, there are intense passages in the first movement that are without the violin and that set the shifting moods of the music. The violin often responds to what the orchestra has played. There are also substantial portions where there is a true "dialogue" between the soloist and orchestra. The first movement is, for the most part, quite intense and dramatic. The second movement is slow and lyrical, with greater sensitivity; it leads immediately to the third movement, which is generally animated and agitated and has slower and more serene moments.

Our soloist in Tchaikovsky's violin concerto was the young Taiwanese-American virtuoso Paul Huang (born 1990). He studied at Julliard in New York City and has already had a very distinguished and successful career.

He played a Guarnerius violin from the 1670s (loaned to him) and the use of this very fine instrument was a major factor in the sweetness in his playing. He has much in common with Jascha Heifetz, who was also known for this concerto and who played with a unique sweetness that contrasted with some dazzling playing as well.

Huang played with great feeling and emotion. He effectively captured the intensity of this concerto. It was a "dream performance" that really moved those who heard his playing. He sometimes closed his eyes, as if to better appreciate Tchaikovsky's singing qualities in the violin.

Yes, Huang ensured that the violin really sang in this music. He is very expressive and conveys moments of joy as well as deep feeling. Little wonder that the audience, prompted by the orchestra, gave Huang a tremendous standing ovation that led to rhythmic applause, the traditional European insistence on an encored.

Huang didn't identify his solo encore, but it was a piece that included both sweetness and showmanship.

Rob Nylund is the host of WBOI's Classical Connection every Saturday evening from 6 to 8 p.m.