MYA’s Sizzling Scheherazade
Conductor Allan Dennis isn’t shy about tackling some of the most substantial and challenging works in the orchestral repertoire when programming for his Midwest Young Artists Conservatory Symphony Orchestra. Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, Rachmaninoff’s Second, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and a few Strauss tone poems are among the many towering works he and his young musicians have tackled with a maturity and technical acumen well beyond what can be reasonably expected from high school aged artists.
Sunday at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston, Dr. Dennis added another big showpiece to the MYAC repertoire with a superb account of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s ever popular warhorse, Scheherazade. As expected, the reading was energized with the infectious exuberance and raw vitality audiences have come to expect from the orchestra. But, in a promising sign in this first concert of the 2018/2019 season, all of this was dispatched with a level of polish a step above the already high standards established in a quarter century of music-making.
Not only were string and wind tuttis confident and tightly secured, but the scoring of this Russian masterpiece provided a showcase for MYA’s distinguished principal players. To a person they were up to the task, with beautifully rendered solo passages peppering the 45 minute performance.
Rimsky-Korsakov called his sprawling work a symphonic suite, rather than a symphony, reflecting his use of loose structures rather than traditional forms such as sonata, scherzo, and rondo. His inspiration was One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Arabic folk tales compiled over many centuries by various authors from the 8th to the 14th centuries. The original tale that frames the stories involves the ruler Shahryar and his wife Scheherazade. In this lurid and violent backstory, Shahryar learns of the infidelities of his brother’s wife as well as his own, who he kills in retribution for her unfaithfulness. Believing all women to be thus inclined, he proceeds to marry a succession of virgins only to murder them before they have a chance to stray. Finally he marries Scheherazade, who is able to survive by telling the jealous king an engrossing tale without providing an ending. He is thus compelled to show mercy so that the tale will continue to unfold.
Rimsky-Korsakov was a master of orchestral color, memorable tunes, and opulent harmonies, characteristics in full flower in the opening movement, The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship. From the stentorian opening brass outpouring and the gently ringing woodwind choir, it was clear that parents and friends in the audience were in for a treat.
More than perhaps any other grand orchestral showpiece, Scheherazade relies on a strong roster of principal players for a compelling interpretation. Primus inter pares in the parade of virtuosos is the concertmaster, who is in many ways is the expressive lifeblood of the work, with lyrical and virtuosic statements that rival some of the showiest passages in violin concertos. Liam Diethrich was more than up to the task, with a luscious and penetrating sound that set a high expressive standard in his deeply poignant opening cadenza. Diethrich also had a superb supporting cast of committed first and second violinists. Some of the most memorable moments were those that combined both violin sections for dramatic unisons that easily filled the hall even as the rest of the ensemble played full bore.
Cellist Haoming Song’s initial solo passages may have been “mere” accompaniments to the superb solos of horn player Ryan Burns, oboist Timothy Zhang, and flutist Lucy Rubin, but the eloquent arpeggios were a delight in their own right. Song soon took up melodic duties himself, trading well-turned phrases with Zhang and clarinetist Eric Butler.
Diethrich graced the opening bars of The Tale of Prince Kalendar with another soaring solo, enriched by the graceful accompaniment of harpist Lerin Peterson. Nick Nocita’s mournful bassoon solo was pure magic, and another series of solos was interrupted by a new, martial theme delivered with vigor by trombonist Katherine Koeppen and trumpet player Anubis Martinez Ruiz.
The third movement, The Young Prince and the Princess, opens and closes with one of the composer’s most tender entreaties, and Dr. Dennis coaxed a passionate tone from his massed strings, while the long, rippling arabesques of Butler and Rubin were spellbinding. The finale (Festival at Bagdad; The Sea; The Ship Goes to Pieces on a Rock) recaps many of the highlights of the previous movements, and MYAC’s superb brass and percussion sections propelled much of the forward momentum.
Rimsky-Korsakov didn’t submit a detailed program for this dazzling musical travelogue of the ancient Islamic world, but Dennis and his young forces delivered such a vivid performance that the mind couldn’t help but conjure any number of dazzling scenes. The performance was an unforgettable start to the season, and an encouraging sign of great musical adventures to come.