The first Louisville Orchestra concert of 2016 also represented Jorge Mester’s penultimate concert as director emeritus of the Louisville Orchestra.
Before the concert, Brad Broecker, the orchestra’s former CEO who was crucial in securing the Maestro’s return to Louisville as music director following several tumultuous years, honored Mester’s two terms as music director.
Though Mester’s earliest and longest term in Louisville centered around the ground-breaking First Edition recordings, his last statement in official capacity was reserved and thoughtful: pairing the beloved Piano Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff with Bohuslav Martinů’s imaginative Symphony No. 6 (Zoltan Kolday’s Dances of Galánta will be added to the Saturday evening concert).
If you’re unsure of Martinů’s legitimacy, a quick look at his musical pedigree should dissuade any doubt: Mozart taught Ignaz von Seyfried, who taught Brahms. Brahms mentored Dvorak who taught Josef Suk, who was Martinů’s first and only composition teacher. Martinů was a professional violinist for most of his career, only turning to composition seriously in his 30s and writing his six symphonies in his 50s, after emigrating to America. Add to this over a dozen ballet scores, over a dozen operas and hundreds of solo and chamber works, Martinů’s output reaches the 400 mark, and legitimacy, quickly.
Martinů’s sixth symphony, subtitled Fantasies symphoniques (“Fantastical symphonies”), was written after his recovery from a serious head injury in the early 1950s. He had taken a four-year hiatus from his fifth symphony (first recorded by the Louisville Orchestra), and returned to the symphonic genre with a new idea — a free-form fantasy for orchestra. This stream-of-consciousness approach wasn’t new to music, but for a neo-classicalite like Martinů, not adhering to formulaic rigor was atypical.
Despite this lack of structure, the sixth symphony does return to familiar motives, most notably a whirling, curtain of sound heard at the beginning (reminiscent of insect buzzing), and a cryptic, four-note motive, first announced by the principal cello. Martinů’s symphony is colorful and rhythmically challenging. The latter only caused some minor problems for the orchestra, but the former suited the orchestra well. Strings were biting and also lyrical, woodwinds pristine and balanced, and the brass gave an impeccable performance. This symphony also gives you the rare treat of seeing tubist John DiCesare use a mute — you can’t miss it.
Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto, like Martinů’s sixth symphony, was born out of recovery. For Rachmaninoff, in the form of recovery from severe depression and self-doubt after a tepid reception to his first symphony. For a modern audience, this concerto is one of the most enjoyed of Rachmaninoff’s. It bears all the hallmarks of a Rachmaninoff: undulating piano arpeggios under long, velvety melodies; tender and intimate solo passages; and athletic runs up and down the keyboard.
Soloist William Wolfram is a towering figure, broad shouldered and standing at around 6 foot, 5 inches (Rachmaninoff was just as tall). The adjectives “nimble” or “agile” wouldn’t typically describe someone like Wolfram, but his calm demeanour gave him the physical freedom to glide effortlessly across the keyboard. Wolfram is a decisive player, often pensive, with little showmanship. For the orchestra’s part, the long, lush melodies that permeate Rachmaninoff’s score felt natural and sincere.
Guest concertmaster Phillip Palermo, from the Indianapolis Symphony, joined the orchestra for Friday’s concert, and returns for the Saturday evening concert, which will also include Zoltan Kodaly’s Dances of Galánta.
Daniel Gilliam is director of radio for Louisville Public Media, and host on Classical 90.5 WUOL.