Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini with pianist Inon Barnatan and Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition led by BSO Assistant Conductor Anna Rakitina naturally paired in Friday’s matinee. Both Moscow-born, contemporaries Rakitina and composer Elena Langer stepped out in the latter’s Suite from Figaro Gets a Divorce.
Programming Langer ahead of the two Russian anchors yielded perspective as much as personality. How orchestral pieces are born may be a result of taking a revered virtuoso’s theme, a tribute to an artist friend, or in the case of the Langer, a sequel-of-a sequel Figaro.
Langer’s “elevation” of Cherubino from “sex-crazed teen” to middle aged “sleaze” fits into the long continuum of opening up expression over the centuries, be it political, venereal, or otherwise. Langer told us how the larger opera takes place in turbulent times somewhere in 20th-c. Central Europe, but ends with “all forgiving each other.”
While the British composer mostly stays with a variety of conventions, she strays into orchestral waters spewn overboard. The Suite flits around making it impossible to follow its six sections even though each bears a descriptive title. The long-awaited accordion representing an evil person named Major made only a brief appearance. Without the stage action, overblown bluesy and jazzy steals became all the more unsettling for those who know and love our country’s indigenous history. If this isn’t pastiche (was there a bit of Stravinsky) what then is it, ironic, sardonic? It sounded as though Rakitina got it all watching her leanly measured pulse contrasting to her open-armed sweeps.
Inon Barnatan sparked the hall in the Paginini Variations, perhaps even the orchestra, in a boldly beautiful Rachmaninoff. An “admired” pianist with “impeccable musicality” and a “true poet of the keyboard” are words of praise well-earned by American-Israeli soloist Inon Barnatan. The matchup of Barnatan, the BSO, and Rakitina mustered true soundness all through Rachmaninoff’s 24 variations. There must be something to pianism when a concert artist the likes of Barnatan is passionate about contemporary music and is equally at home as a curator and chamber player.
Under Barnatan’s hands, this well-worn Russian piano-orchestral work came cut with care and exactness as a sculpture that should stand strong over time—music turned to three-dimensional lifelike form. Muscular and sinuous lines over and again led to imaginative proportions. The best-known variation on the Paginini theme—the Russian ingeniously flipped backwards (an old convention)—figured into something of a Rodin Le Penser. This memorable understanding of Opus 42 from Barnatan might very well satisfy Tolstoy who thought Rachmaninoff’s work mere intellectual diatribes. As to Rakitina’s BSO—all lock-step.
That rightfully brought an encore. Barnatan went to town with Earl Wild’s super cool arrangement befitting the pianist of George Gershwin’s Broadway hit, “I Got Rhythm. Deft defying. In real jazz tradition the takeoff ended with explosive percussive hits on the keyboard bringing us once again to our feet.
Rakitina upped the tempos in Ravel’s renowned orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Somewhat following in the bold steps taken in the Rachmaninoff, she led a striding Promenade and, with the left hand made into a fist, marked the savage downbeats in Gnomus. Saxophonist Ryan Yuré’s smooth, enveloping tenor notes were a highlight. For the picture of the ox-drawn wagon, the tuba could have given more to the enormity of the wheels. For the picture of the rich and poor Jew, the muted trumpet less chatter. Something new to see: Rakitina’s baton dotted the air rising in rapid staccato-like notes in Ballet of Chicks in their Shells. The Great Gate of Kiev arrived with some fatigue after this much outspoken Exhibition, the hymn faintly uttered.