As the symphony-going public around the Valley should know, James Ogle the Boise Philharmonic's conductor of nearly 20 years, had a rough year, suffering a stroke last fall that took him from the conductor's podium last season. This season, Ogle is back in a limited capacity, conducting just two programs (the opener and the program in January), though he will continue to advise and coordinate programming. The remaining performances will be led by guest conductors from around the country, and the dates will serve as on-the-job auditions as the philharmonic searches for a new musical director.
On Saturday, September 23, the Boise Philharmonic opened the season at the Morrison Center (after a warm-up performance at NNU's Brandt Center in Nampa on Friday). Ogle took the podium and received a standing ovation from an audience clearly glad to see him up there again.
The program, titled "Romantic Rachmaninoff," actually featured works by three Russian composers: Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Russian Easter" Overture (Op. 36), Dmitry Shostakovich's Ballet Suite from "The Bolt" (Op. 27), and after the brief intermission, the titular Sergei Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 (Op. 18), featuring a guest soloist, pianist Sara Davis Buechner. The pieces, though thematically unified by the three composers' Russian origins, were each unlike the others in style, as concertgoers expecting more similarity in sound were to find.
Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Overture is a piece that really demonstrates its inspirations. Drawing on both the solemn religiosity and the nationalist tones of Russian Orthodox hymns, the piece's almost overwrought dignity was palpable as the sound of the philharmonic's instruments filled the concert hall. Much of the overture was carried by the symphony's lower, richer instruments and the heavy metal brass. Russian Easter built to a stirring conclusion that served to prime the audience for the rest of the performance.
Where the Rimsky-Korsakov had dignity, Shostakovich's ballet suite had impishness; where the former was solemn, the latter's version of a serious moment was actually a mockery of solemnity. "The Bolt" was a ballet created under the auspices of revolutionary Russia (Shostakovich began the score in 1930), and an interesting choice for the evening's program. Sandwiched between the straightforward, though very different, pieces by Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninoff, its not-entirely-pleasant mocking humor rang a little tinny--a reference to the sentiment, not the skill of the Boise Philharmonic.
The suite began with the overture's repeated drum rolls and bangs (that came down to a bare whisper of drums). The six parts that made up the suite were full of wildly polar dynamics and startling crashes, keeping it interesting. That Shostakovich's piece was intended to be performed with dancers was evident in the sound, itself rather cinematic. The tootling and honking of "The Bureaucrat" evoked the silly, supercilious character it was meant to embody. "Kozelkov's Dance with Friends" was a rousing, Russian folk reel, though Shostakovich meant to cheapen anything you might feel listening to it by making it humorously overwrought. And that's a lot of Shostakovich in a nutshell--his mocking sensibility presents two choices, neither palatable: If you enjoy the piece, you're to do so with smirking, knowing irony, or else misunderstand the tone; or, you can refuse his terms, and then what's the point of the endeavor?
After the confusion of the Shostakovich, the Rachmaninoff was a palate-cleanser. Many dislike the works of Rachmaninoff precisely for their lush romanticism, but happily, I'm not one.
Most of Rachmaninoff sounds cinematic to me--whether a product of his age of composing or mine of listening, I don't know--but not in the Keystone Cops way of the Shostakovich's piece. The lush swells and pounding piano of his Piano Concerto No. 2 (though it debuted at the turn of the 20th century) are simpatico with the gauzy romantic films of the late '30s, emotional to the point of heartbreaking.
Sitting just a few rows back and in the middle, as we were that night, affords little advantage at the symphony until a soloist like Buechner takes the stage. Buechner, an experienced performer, played the piece's piano lead by abandoning herself to the music. She pounded the keys with a unbelievable speed and precision, and she pumped the keys and the pedals so emphatically that she lifted herself off her bench several times. When the piano rested and the orchestra's role stepped forward, Buechner sat, hands poised, almost swooning with the music, clearly transported, though she must have played this exact piece countless times.
After the conclusion of the Rachmaninoff, the talented members of the Boise Philharmonic and their guest took their obligatory bows--Buechner so wracked by her performance, she looked as if she might faint--though the standing ovation, the night's second, was anything but obligatory. If the caliber of the opening performance is any indication of the quality of guests artists to come, this season of the Boise Philharmonic promises to be one to hear--and watch.
The Boise Philharmonic's next concert, "You Asked For It!" is Oct. 13 (Nampa series) and Oct. 14 (Boise series) and features guest conductor Clotilde Otranto leading performances of pieces by Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Bernstein and Aram Khachaturian. For more information, visit www.boisephilharmonic.org.