Fort Worth — The Fort Worth Symphony concert on Friday was an evening of surprises. Rachmaninoff’s first symphony is rarely performed and Koussevitzky’s Concerto for Double Bass is almost never heard. Ravel’s slight piano duet, Ma mère l'Oye, heard in its orchestrated version, appears on programs more than the two other pieces but is still not heard frequently. Thus, most of this music was new to many in the audience. Leading it and the FWSO was a guest conductor with a big name, but not necessarily in music: conductor and pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, novelist and historian, was probably the most famous Soviet dissident as he railed against totalitarianism, especially the horrors of the Gulag labor camps. Many progeny of famous people follow their father into similar, or at least related, fields. But what of the child that choses something completely different? Does a universally well-known surname help in that case? In the case of Solzhenitsyn the younger, his name may have helped him more at the beginning of his career than once he was established, in that it brought the talented five-year-old self-taught pianist to the attention of another Russian exile, Mstislav Rostropovich. They were all still back in Russia at the time.
It took the famous cellist a couple of years to make it happen, but he eventually got the young Solzhenitsyn into the right hands. After that, his last name may have brought some curiosity, but his success is solely based on his talent and dedication. He excels as both a pianist and conductor and is leading a solid and respectable career, which is still developing on an upward trajectory (he was born in 1972). In addition to conducting jobs around the world, and engagements as a pianist, he is on the faculty of the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music.
Solzhenitsyn stands out on the podium because he is a bear of a man, tall and thickly set, in an era of lithe conductors. Physically, he is reminiscent of Andrew Litton but his podium technique is nothing like Litton’s. Solzhenitsyn is much less animated, moving only when the music demands more physical involvement. He keeps his clear and precise beat pattern in front of his body, only rarely extending his arms further when the music demands. Within these parameters, he is every bit as expressive as the most profusely active conductors.
Ravel’s miniature suite Ma mère l'Oye (Mother Goose suite) seemed an odd choice for an opener. It is a study in minimal musical gestures and subtle orchestral colors. Concerts usually start with something to get the blood stirring and the audience involved. As it turned out, Solzhenitsyn’s careful interpretation, with every detail made prominent, proved to be involving. The audience began to listen more and more carefully, as if they were hearing a speaker who had a soft voice. Thus, when the rare big brilliant swaths of sound rose out of the texture, they were impressive and thrilling.
The Koussevitzky bass concerto received an indifferent performance from FWSO principal bass player William Clay. It is not a great piece in the best of circumstances.
Rachmaninoff’s first symphony is not heard as often as is his wildly popular second, mostly because it lacks the many memorable melodies that make his later effort so popular. But other than that, the two symphonies share many traits in common. The most noticeable is that Rachmaninoff presents all of the motivic content of the entire work in the first few measures. How he changes, morphs, develops, expands and contracts these few materials demonstrates his great skill as a composer. Its failure at the premiere, reportedly due to a poor performance, was a devastating blow to the composer.
The part of the story about a poor performance came to mind as I listened to Solzhenitsyn’s methodical building of the symphony, like a building made of individual bricks. Conducting without a score, he exuded confidence and no superfluous gestures got in his way.
It is a truism that you start and the beginning and work to the end, but in a piece like this (and the composer’s later works as well), you start at the beginning but you must have the end in your sights the whole way. In Solzhenitsyn’s interpretation, he left no passage, no matter how tempting, that would overplay the ending. Thus, instead of the first symphony appearing to be devoid of Rachmaninoff’s big song-like tunes, when one does appear in the last movement, it is all the more impressive. Solzhenitsyn let it bloom—like a promise kept.
Rachmaninoff’s first symphony will never overtake his second in popularity, but it is a fine piece. Solzhenitsyn made a very good case for more frequent performances.