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Schepkin Animates Rach2


Families, friends, and lovers (of big orchestral works and romantic concertos) met at Sanders Theater Saturday night to hear the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra play Verdi’s overture to La forza del destino, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suites 1 and 2 (selections), and Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto with Sergey Schepkin.

With a program entitled “Love on the Run” we got a full menu of tenderness, longing, jealousy, rage, revenge (loads of revenge!), despair, murder, and suicide.  Removing suicide, we got a bit of all the rest in the first piece alone. The Verdi, typical of overtures, is, according to our program notes, “a so-called ‘potpourri-overture,’ incorporating melodies from throughout the opera into a seamless romp.” Music Director and Conductor, Cynthia Woods, guided the really large ensemble through their paces with some gusto and exuberance. Kudos to the first clarinet. It felt like being at the movies, without the movie.

It was good to see many of the players then join their friends and family in the audience, instruments in tow, to hear their colleagues play the Rachmaninoff.

From Italy, we ran to Russia, with Russian pianist Sergey Schepkin to lead the way. Here, Woods, serving more as moderator between orchestra and soloist, worked to keep them together. The orchestra didn’t quite keep up in a couple key accelerandos in the first movement, and they didn’t quite end the movement together. That said, it was a pretty thrilling event. The orchestra had a good sound for the piece, and Schepkin’s playing was masterful, structural, and beautifully projected in the room. What a rich sound, never forced. How did he always stay above or with the orchestra without having to raise his arms for torque—even in the climax of the last movement just before the coda? He did use his full arm to project the melody in quieter passages when it consisted of a single note, to stunning results in the 2nd movement in particular. And his chordal playing sounded, well, Russian. And rich, lush, and balanced.

For me there is a yin-yang thing going on with this concerto (and the composer’s 3rd) between introversion and extroversion, or Classicism vs. Romanticism. The 2nd concerto, for me again, is very much about a classical restraint, even a bit Mozartian, despite all the popular tunes, thicker textures, and big climaxes and accelerandos.

Schepkin’s playing was perfectly suited to this conception. Always just a bit of restraint, even in climaxes, leaving me wanting just a tiny bit more. In the end, this makes for an incredibly satisfying experience, like having a perfect three-course dinner (with excellent wine) and longing for just one more taste at the end of each course. Not getting too full, even though the food is rich.

My wife got a kick out of watching the percussionist / cymbal player in the Rachmaninoff. Throughout most of the piece she was perfectly still, reclined but straight, at a near 45-degree angle. Quite a fun change of posture to have her up and vertical, adding to all the drama of the opening and close of 3rd movement with so many cymbal crashes. The piece did end with a bang, orchestra and pianist running full tilt, in synch. And the audience loved it.

After intermission, we stayed in Russia, but managed to run back to Italy at the same time, to pass time with those wonderful feuding Montagues and Capulets, who opened this production. Prokofiev’s original ballet for Romeo and Juliet was nearly two and a half hours in length, in four acts with 52 dance scenes. The composer had commented that while Russian audiences liked such long productions, outside Russia the norm was for shorter ballets. He extracted three different suites from the full ballet, as well as a 10-movement piano arrangement, but none of them are sequential, at least in terms of the narrative. Instead they form their own little musical universes, though they are often combined or interspersed with movements from, in particular, Suites 1 and 2. The CSO performed eight of fourteen movements or scenes, from Suites 1 and 2. I believe they were in the order of events in the ballet and the original play.

We got the requisite darkness, anger, and doom, and some of Prokofiev’s signature, angular melodic lines in the opening scene. The angular, rhythmic theme—the Capulets’ theme?—that rises and falls, often heard in triplets that are stretched to the point of being dotted eighths and a sixteenth, here was stretched the other direction, between triplets and duplets. Interesting result, making it less sharp, but bawdier or drunken sounding. This theme, expressed mostly in the strings, got good support from the brass. But then the brass deserted, as they were needed to present the bombastic theme from the other house, the two warring themes then colliding.

In the next scene, “Young Juliet” ran about lightly, almost taking flight, with violins and flute. Kudos again to first clarinet, also first flute.

Then, in Romeo and Juliet; “Balcony Scene,” Prokofiev gives us some of his most enduring and endearing melodies—ones that soar up and beyond the balcony, with a shimmering and undulating backdrop. What incredible orchestration, and very nicely done by the full ensemble, though it might have been even better to hear an orchestra of this size swell even more in the crescendos in this love scene. (It’s okay to want more.) Then more love on the run, or hiding out, in “Romeo at Juliet’s Before Parting.”

Woods put the orchestra on hold for a moment as a siren passed before beginning the lively, dark, macabre dancing that opens “Tybalt’s Death” scene, before it takes a turn for the more violent. The orchestra sounded appropriately harsh and brittle, with the brass seizing the day with rich, ominous harmonizing of the noble, dark melody. Finally, the snare drum took a key role in completing the death march.

A quieter introduction to “Friar Lawrence” led to the closing scene, “Romeo at Juliet’s Grave,” full of throbbing darkness, anger, lament, and regret, expressed throughout the full orchestra. So much sadness, so well received.

Jim McDonald has masters degrees in arts administration and piano performance from the University of Iowa, where he studied with John Simms. He has presented chamber music for 25 years.

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