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Classical Connection: 2023-24 Philharmonic season opens performances in PFW's Auer Hall

The Fort Wayne Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by music director Andrew Constantine, opened its Masterworks Series for the 2023-24 season in the Auer Performance Hall at the Rhinehart Music Center on the Purdue Fort Wayne campus this past Saturday, before a very large and enthusiastic crowd.

The concert featured just two works: Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s violin concerto and Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” (as orchestrated by Maurice Ravel). There was no intermission.

This is the first season in which the Philharmonic will be performing all of its Masterworks concerts at Purdue Fort Wayne, after playing most of its concerts at the Embassy Theatre in downtown Fort Wayne. There are advantages to playing on the university campus: there is a large parking garage close to the Rhinehart Music Center and the Auer Performance Hall has better acoustics and brighter lighting than the 1928 movie palace.

Violinist Gil Shaham, who has performed several times in the past with the Philharmonic, returned to play the Korngold concerto, a work previously played with former Philharmonic concertmaster Hiromi Ito and Edvard Tchivzhel conducting. The concerto, which was written in 1945 for violinist Jascha Heifetz, is in three very expressive movements and utilizes themes from Korngold’s Warner Brothers film scores

Korngold (1897-1957) was considered a “wonder child,” performing and composing as a child and he showed striking maturity in his operas and concert works. A notable example is his very dramatic and very powerful opera “The Dead City.” He was one of a handful of composers who preferred a late romantic style in the early twentieth century.

By the mid 1930s, Korngold was typically called “old-fashioned” and found it more advantageous to compose lush film scores for Warner Brothers. He won two Oscars for his Hollywood scores and most of that music is now considered part of the “golden age” of American motion pictures. He excelled in writing for historic films and “swashbucklers,” but he also wrote music for more modern stories such as “Kings Row.” His film scores spanned from 1935 to 1947.

As World War II drew to a close in 1945, Korngold resumed concert works and produced a brilliant violin concerto for the great Jascha Heifetz. As I noted, Korngold used some melodies from several of his film scores and that was one thing that troubled some film critics. Eventually, music lovers and critics came to admire the concerto as a brilliant late romantic and virtuoso work. It was certainly well suited to a master such as Heifetz.

The concerto is quite challenging for the soloist and, fortunately, Gil Shaham was more than capable of performing the solos with great skill and great feeling. He clearly was enjoying himself and he had some wonderful interaction with conductor Constantine and the concertmaster, Violetta Todorova. In fact, there was a brief charming duet between Shaham and Todorova.

Korngold’s orchestration is lush, colorful, and complex, offering ample opportunities for all of the musicians. So, there were some wonderful individual and sectional performances during the concerto. It is also enjoyable for those of us like Korngold’s film scores to hear them in a concert setting.

The performance of the concerto so impressed the audience that there was an extended standing ovation. I was particularly impressed that the French horns and trumpets were outstanding in the very challenging coda, which was “flubbed” in the Philharmonic’s previous performance of the concerto under Tchivzhel. Constantine must have worked to ensure that everything would come together, especially in the final moments. In any case, Constantine and Shaham decided to repeat the third movement in its entirety and it was great to have a second listening of that dazzling finale.

The Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) wrote “Pictures at an Exhibition” as a spectacular work for solo piano. He composed this amazing music as a memorial tribute to his friend, artist Viktor Hartmann, and tried to re-create in music some of the highlights of an exhibition of Hartmann’s remarkable works of art.

This 1874 composition “cried” to be orchestrated, but Mussorgsky did not attempt to expand the sound of his innovative score. There were some attempts to orchestrate the suite and then, in 1922, the French composer Maurice Ravel was asked by conductor Serge Koussevitzky to produce a definitive orchestral version. Ravel was known as a master in orchestration and his version of Mussorgsky’s music was a great success.

Those of us familiar with Ravel’s version of “Pictures at an Exhibition” have long come to enjoy and appreciate this achievement. It is definitely a challenging showpiece that provides ample opportunities for various instruments in the orchestra. So, the Philharmonic musicians had numerous brilliant moments.

I was very impressed with the playing by the brass and percussion sections. As had happened in the Korngold concerto, Constantine had one of the percussionists play the chimes while standing on a ladder at the left back corner of the stage!

Ravel’s orchestration has some moments where he asks for a deep, dark sound, so this gave the Philharmonic’s cellos, double bass, and tuba a real chance to “shine.” The sound is clearly Russian, for the most part, and it is very moving. There are considerable contrasts in the various movements, sometimes very frightening and supernatural…and other times rather witty. One of the more delightful movements depicts children playing and this was performed with great charm. I also like the movement depicting arguing women in a marketplace and another movement in which two Jewish men are having an animated discussion.

The work leads to the frightening and troubling “Baba Yaga,” a depiction of a little and mischievous witch, followed immediately by the triumphant “Great Gate at Kiev.”

The Philharmonic is definitely off to a very great start and it is my hope that the clearer acoustics in the Auer Performance Hall will contribute greatly to upcoming Masterworks concerts.

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