Snow, ice and subzero temperatures across the country complicated the travel plans for many of the musicians headed to the region for the South Florida Symphony’s concerts last weekend in Key West, Fort Lauderdale, Delray Beach and Aventura. But, they made it.
Piano soloist Christopher Taylor, scheduled to perform the Piano Concerto #3 in C Major by Serge Prokofiev (1891-1953), almost didn’t. He was stranded in the Atlanta airport for two days before snagging a flight to West Palm Beach and hitching a ride with the Symphony’s board chair to Key West for a quick run through before taking the stage for the first performance. As if that wasn’t enough pressure, Taylor was shadowed by FBI agents because he witnessed the heist of a priceless Stradivarius violin in Milwaukee the weekend before.
Most performers might have let the circumstances get the better of them, but not Taylor. With one concert with the Symphony and Maestra Sebrina Maria Alfonso under his belt, Taylor dazzled audiences at Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center on Friday, Jan. 31.
The concerto, one of the most widely performed 20th century works in the repertoire, is at times both virtuosic and understated, lyrical and percussive, impetuous and captivating, spotlighting the soloist and the orchestra equally. Partners in the performance, Taylor and Alfonso seamlessly handed off melodic and accompaniment passages, accentuated by dissonant chromatic arpeggiations and mixed meter rhythms. The audience acknowledged the collaborative contributions of both with repeated ovations.
For a time, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was the darling of a communist Soviet government that controlled every aspect of its citizens’ lives, but following the triumph of his Fourth Symphony, the composer quickly fell into disfavor among the party elite. Josef Stalin was rumored to have himself written the reviews in “Pravda” that banished Shostakovich to a cultural gulag.
Months after Stalin’s death in 1953, Shostakovich returned to popular acclaim with his Tenth Symphony, widely believed to include a musical portrait of the departed dictator. The first movement is clearly cathartic, a melancholy, drawn out 25-minute long sonata form. The fiery second movement is a vicious, raw portrait of Stalin. The third movement makes use of a melodic motif meant to “spell” out the initials of Shostakovich and the name of his love interest, while the fourth movement proclaims victory over Stalin’s memory.
Alfonso attacked the work, matching the changing moods measure-by-measure, beat-by-beat. While the symphony was clearly challenging for the strings — rhythmic pizzicato passages were not always precise — it was the winds and percussion who provided the gravitas throughout: clarinets, oboes and bassoons in the first movement and horns and piccolos in the third providing the signature motifs, all punctuated by driving percussion rhythms.
In a program titled, “Hiddenspeak and Double Meanings,” an appropriate opening was Franz Liszt’s “Hamlet” – Symphonic Poem #10. Liszt (1811-1893) was one of the undisputed piano virtuosos of his generation, a well-regarded critic and teacher. He was also a composer of several timeless works and many others that could only aspire to greater recognition.
“Hamlet” is one of those works—not particularly great music, but a solid example of the composer’s colorful, programmatic approach. Rather than a literal interpretation of the story that inspired Shakespeare, this psychological portrait explores the inner conflicts that permeate Hamlet’s consciousness and the unspoken yearning for Ophelia. The work concludes with a funeral march incorporating Hamlet’s themes.
Concertmistress Whitney LaGrange fearlessly led the orchestra through Liszt’s endless chromatic metamorphoses, but also distinguished herself during the lyrical solo passages that marked Ophelia’s theme.
The South Florida Symphony next performs, “A Summons to Life,” including music by Mozart, Zwilich and Schumann and featuring pianist Jeffrey Biegel, March 27 – 31 in Key West, Fort Lauderdale, Delray Beach and Aventura. For more information and tickets, go to SouthFloridaSymphony.org