A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Aug 27, 2013
09:20 AM
Classically Speaking

Peninsula Music Festival, Part II: Shostakovich, Authenticated

Peninsula Music Festival, Part II: Shostakovich, Authenticated

PHOTO COURTESY PENINSULA MUSIC FESTIVAL

Music director and conductor of the Peninsula Music Festival, Victor Yampolsky

If you’re going to devote a late summer festival’s program to the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, you’ve either spent a little too much time in the Door County sun—or you know exactly what you’re doing.

The latter proved to be the case last Thursday, when Peninsula Music Festival director/conductor Victor Yampolsky rolled the dice with a program of both Shostakovich piano concertos and his final symphony. This is a pretty tough sell even in a large city that is supporting a major ensemble (yes, even Madison!). But Yampolsky has clearly won the trust of his Door County subscribers over the years—and has the credentials for Shostakovich that make people listen.

But before the heart, soul and enigmas of the late Soviet master, we were treated to a rarity, the brief “Reverie” of Scriabin, led by the third of this summer’s maestros-in-training, Chris Ramaekers. Part of the new “Emerging Conductors” program, Ramaekers quickly demonstrated that the PMF ensemble sounded every bit as beguiling under his baton as they had been in the previous program under JoAnn Falletta.

The two piano concertos of Shostakovich are fascinating bookends, the first relatively early in his career, the second somewhat late. Of the two, one is far more likely to encounter No. 1, with its pared down orchestra of strings and a trumpet soloist, who may or may not share the front of the stage with the pianist. Yampolsky opted for the latter, which on the whole works best, as the obbligato horn does sit at rest for a few stretches. Besides, Terry Everson never had any trouble matching (or dominating, when needed) the proceedings. Better still, in the respite of a slow movement Everson’s trumpet belied its brass nature with a smooth, alluring timbre.

But the work is titled a piano concerto, after all, and Stewart Goodyear was predictably comfortable with every challenge in the work. A favorite at PMF as well as in Madison, Goodyear is a model of energy channeled, capable of a stunning array of colors. In the ever more frantic finale of Piano Concerto No. 1, it was as if he were throwing fistfuls of diamonds at the keyboard, which ricocheted back in dazzling prisms of light. In the slow movement of Piano Concerto No. 2 the reverse was on display: On a serene foundation of velvety strings, Goodyear poured out luminous liquid pearls of sounds, laid down with the greatest care. The PMF commissioned a piano concerto from Goodyear himself and he premiered it at the Door County Auditorium in 2010; next spring he will return to the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with the same work.

As for Yampolsky and his orchestra, the first of the concertos gave us an even greater appreciation for a reduced string section of precision and unanimity of tone and phrase. Yampolsky has a special affinity for this music, having known Shostakovich before leaving the Soviet Union in 1973. He brought all of his skills to bear in the occasionally baffling Symphony No. 15, the last in Shostakovich’s canon.

The first movement, famous for its brief, but frequent quotation of the first few bars of the overture to William Tell, unfolds as a typically quirky tongue-in-cheek romp. But the slow movement is startling and mysterious, and the finale—with its less obvious use of motifs from Wagner’s Ring cycle and Tristan und Isolde—leads one to an emotional nowhere land. The near-capacity audience, usually quick to deliver deserved standing ovations over the last two concerts, responded with initially muted applause.

Still, the approbation was sustained; the auditors seemed more puzzled than disappointed. Besides, closing night was still to come, and the promise of magnificent Mahler. Tomorrow, the truly thrilling conclusion of my week in Fish Creek.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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