Teddy Abrams took the Britt hillside in Jacksonville deep into Russia Saturday night. The 26-year-old conductor, the second of three finalists vying for the artistic leadership of the summer festival, conducted compositions by Mikhail Glinka, Igor Stravinsky and Dmitri Shostakovitch. (Correction: The date of the show reviewed has been corrected in this version.)
Abrams, who in his day jobs is resident conductor of the Budapest Symphony Orchestra in Hungary and assistant conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, commands the podium with the crisp elan of a veteran conductor.
"Ruslan and Lyudmila" is the 1842 opera that Mikhail Glinka, "the father of Russian music," based on Pushkin's 1820 poem of the same name. It is the story of the rescue of Ludmila, a beautiful princess, from an evil sorcerer by the brave hero Ruslan. It features a flying dwarf with a magic beard, a disembodied giant head and a resurrection.
Lurid content aside, it's the opera's supercharged overture that is the grabber. Written in sonata form and previewing the opera's central conflict, the overture has found its way to enduring popularity and is the piece most associated with Glinka today.
Under Abrams' baton, the orchestra charged out of the gate in full fury, with the violins introducing a lively theme and dominating melodically. The woodwinds, and then the brass, soon joined the discussion.
The strings quickly came back with a calmer theme, which escalated into long, spirited passages that quickly involved the rest of the orchestra, and the whole thing built quickly to a heroic climax. Whether it's your cup of tea or not, the piece packs a lot of drama into approximately five minutes.
In Stravinsky's Violin Concerto in D, which premiered in October of 1931, early in his neoclassical period, the composer paid homage to Bach. Performances of the concerto are often marked by abrupt changes of mood and tempo as the music lurches between violinist and orchestra, and Saturday night at Britt was no exception, but the violin soon commanded most of the attention.
The evening's guest artist, the German/Italian violinist Augustin Hadelich, got gorgeous tones from the 1723 "ex-Kiesewette" (named for a former owner) Stradivari violin he plays through an arrangement with the Stradivari Society. Its warmth quickly seemed to engulf the hillside. And under Abrams' direction the orchestra's overture sounded fresh and supple, with a generous dose of lyricism.
Hadelich, a graduate of the Juilliard School, took the famed "passport to the Concerto" chord in stride. The chord got its tag from the composer himself when the violinist who was going to play the piece at its world premiere said it would be impossible to play (he later played it no problems). The "passport chord" is heard at the beginning of each movement, each time in slightly different form.
Hadelich's fast-fingered playing was full of high spirits and buoyant humor. His stunning technique and rich colors seem to add a dazzling flair even to such well-known works as the violin concerto.
Surely nobody believes anymore the composer's strange assertion that the concerto is not technically challenging for the violinist. Hadelich's rendering of Stravinski's rhythmic energy in the Capriccio was astonishing, especially the final minute or two. Yet mere technical ability was overshadowed by the violinist's warm, moving tonalities.
When the audience wouldn't let him go, he merely tossed in as an encore Paganini's famed Carpice No. 24 with its astonishing arpeggios, minor scales in thirds and tenths, left hand pizzicato and quick string crossings. The audience would have had more encores if the program had permitted.
Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 was the evening's final number.
While Stravinski was palling around with Musolini in Italy, Shostakovich was facing the disapproval of Stalin in the Soviet Union, and this symphony is an example of how a piece of serious music could get caught up, perhaps lethally, in politics.
After his 1936 opera "Lady Macbeth" was condemned by the Soviet dictator, Shostakovich had to know he was writing for his life. Stalin was ramping up the gulags, and creative artists were prime candidates.
The Fifth brought him back into favor, but there's a long-running controversy as whether it represents the what Stalin insisted on, or whether the composer had his tongue in his cheek.
Abrams, who described the symphony as containing "tragedy and sadness" but "not without joy," got it off to a vigorous start, with the strings quickly establishing a strenuous figure that eventually gave way to the lyricism of a melody played by the first violins, a theme that would return repeatedly later in the symphony. The varied rhythms led to a harsh climax, and the coda ended the movement in somewhat ambiguous fashion.
The first theme returns in the Allegretto and reappears in variations through widely varying moods. After all the aggressive brass of the first two movements, the Allegreto has none at all. Instead, the strings took over in groups that sang out lovely, complex melodies, one of which was yet another iteration of that first theme.
In the Allegro non troppo the march-like mood that dominated the the end of the first movement returned. After a contemplative section the timpani announced a martial lead-up to the finale and a return to the D major tones.
The fourth movement includes a theme Shostakovich lifted from an earlier piece about an artist being criticised. Is this the composer telling us in code that he's not really kowtowing to Stalin, as his friend Mstislav suggested?
Under Abrams leadership, the piece was stirring, and I didn't hear any musical irony or parody. Does the third movement suggest the struggle of the proletariat? Maybe. If you want it to. Or not
Mstislav claimed that playing the final movement slowly and steadily conveyed a hidden, anti-Stalin message. Abrams did not accelerate the tempo radically, as conductors have done in the presumably Stalin-approved fashion, but neither did he drag it out into a dirge that would undercut its apparently approval-seeking triumphalism.
Led by the violins, it simply surged through big, repeated crescendos to a huge, emotionally satisfying climax.
Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.