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Myth and Monumentality

Nov. 3, 2007

Groner is outstanding in his ability to bring each player’s results to higher levels within the strictures of a finite rehearsal schedule and this gift was once more in evidence on this night.

Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is a languorous study composed as incidental music for the poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. In the words of the composer, it is a piece of “mood painting” descriptive of the “desires and dreams of the faun” as it moves “in the heat of the afternoon.” Casting a seductive cloak over the piece, Groner led a lingering reading that held both diaphanous textures and the full weight of its brief climactic crescendo in which the timbre thickens as the afternoon heat builds to a parched, but fleeting intensity. The orchestra responded with an evocative array of colors, each suggesting a different degree of drowsy warmth.

Next, Sibelius. The incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, completed in 1926 - two years after his Symphony No. 7 (his last published symphony), partakes of both sides of his personality, that displayed in his Karelia Suite and the darker one reflected in his tone poems and symphonic works. Those portions contained in his Suite No. 1 vary in character, from the simple, rocking figures of The Oak Tree to the pounding, lurid dance theme of Caliban’s Song and forward to The Storm, a highly effective conjuring of nature’s force (something Sibelius understood as did few other composers of any age). Groner and the FVSO recreated the composer’s singular oeuvre with certainty and welcome finesse.

The Suite was bound together with a narrative written by Colin Hampton using many of the Bard’s own words. John Koker, Professor of Mathematics and Dean of the College of Letters and Science at UW/Oshkosh was the speaker, efficient in his delivery though denied by his tenorial voice and Midwestern accent the full resonance of Shakespeare’s text. Certain speeches, such as Prospero’s ringing address about forgoing his magic, were unduly rushed.

Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto is somewhat less frequently programmed than his Second, but places even greater technical demands upon the pianist. More cohesive than its predecessor, it holds a number of critical solo passages for various orchestral players, moments that demand careful shaping. The composer, still unequalled as an advocate for his keyboard works (due in no small part to his exceedingly large hands), yielded in his later years to younger virtuosos such as fellow Russian Vladimir Horowitz by declining to continue to perform his concerti.

Buzz had been strong around Appleton regarding the appearance of Russian-born pianist Dmitri Novgorodsky who now serves as Assistant Professor of Music at Lawrence University. The Odessa native had notable successes in his native country before emigrating to Israel where he was awarded an Extraordinary Pianist Grant. A full scholarship to Yale University brought him to the United States where he studied with Boris Berman (a very different kind of artist). In 1998, he was granted Extraordinary Abilities in the Arts US residency and, since then, has enjoyed a rich concert life here and abroad.

While a number of artists have made a mark upon this imposing piece and it would be foolish to describe any one of them as entirely revelatory, this performance was very fine indeed. Mr. Novgorodsky has real virtuoso credentials, necessary in Rachmaninoff’s Third as just getting the notes in place falls far short of requirements. More to the point, this artist has a lavish technique and plush tone, skirting any hint of pounding, and a sense of give and take especially important in the episodic rise and fall, rise and fall of the final movement.

Novgorodsky began simply, tracing the straightforward first movement melody with the lyricism that contrasts effectively with the complexities that soon arrive. The cascades of notes he released in the first movement cadenza showered the landscape with unforced brilliance while the filigree of the Intermezzo/Adagio was gracefully limned. In the marathon final movement, the pianist paced himself wisely, allowing the quiet interludes to emerge with unhurried expression before the next swelling of orchestral sound drew forth massive piano tone propelled with sweeping power. The contours thus respected, the movement proceeded with compelling inevitability to its resolute conclusion. The explosion of applause and cheers left no doubt about the audience’s enthusiasm for an exciting venture in which Groner and his orchestra participated with equal portions of sympathy and authority.

Excerpts from Northeast Wisconsin Music Review

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