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Symphony taps Russian masters in brilliant opening night

Oct. 7, 2017

The Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra has, for more than 50 years, been a cornerstone of the arts scene in our community. Having been to numerous opening nights, I was expecting another evening of high quality musicianship on Saturday evening at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center.

And to say I was delighted would be a colossal understatement. Despite being commonplace for both audience and critics to laud effusive praise even when it may not be entirely warranted, I find it impossible to offer anything less than earnest appreciation and awe.

On to the music — a night of Russian masters. Unknown by many in the audience, Tchaikovsky’s Overture to Voyevoda was a microcosm of Maestro Brian Groner’s 22-year tenure with this orchestra as this performance became better and better over time. Before it even started I was skeptical of the programming of this piece — Tchaikovsky himself hated it so much he destroyed it only to rewrite it years later as his much better Opus 78 by the same name.

The performance of a lesser work can be effective if the orchestra is able to overcome the compositional limitations. And they did. Near the start of the B section, the soulful horn calls and oft-asynchronous string accompaniment unfolded into a deep and rich presentation of the second melody, with well-tuned octave coupling between violins and cellos that reminded me of the great melodies of much-later Rachmaninoff.

Yet, the very good reason for programming a relatively easy opener was apparent as the evening continued. Offering a much greater challenge to both performers and the audience was Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Opus 77. Unlike the Tchaikovsky, this work was loved by its composer but wasn’t initially offered for performance out of fear of retribution from Stalin and the Soviet censors who would have certainly found it unmelodious, disloyal and inaccessible.

Wen-Lei Gu’s solo violin performance was nothing short of perfection. Let’s start with the first movement, a nocturne, but certainly not a serenade resembling Chopin or Mozart. Laboring under the weight of the world, Shostakovich sets this opening as if the violinist is trudging through the night, alone, suppressed by the darkness. Fittingly, Wen-Lei Gu’s rich tone throughout the range of her instrument conveyed depth and coldness and the kind of solitude that the composer himself must have felt under 1945 Soviet rule. It was perfect.

But the 2nd movement scherzo was quite different, a lively clock-like ride, scary and quite difficult, especially for the woodwinds. Despite a few errant ticks and a misplaced tock or two, the orchestra was stretched technically and pulled it off quite well.

My favorite movement, though, was the Passacaglia. Shostakovich makes it his own, with an angular 17-measure phrase presented by basses and double-bassoon in a kind of drawn out dirge. Step-by-step, the orchestra introduced the main theme as, with eyes closed, Wen-Lei Gu prepared to join, and then offered deeply effective richness and expressiveness from start to finish.

A great soloist should capture the audience and hold them with every note (even when there’s no memorable melody to grab), and this evening’s masterful violinist did exactly that.

Following a five-minute cadenza of angular arpeggios and challenging double-stops, Wen-Lei Gu’s virtuosity made it seem as if only seconds had passed and led into the final Burlesque. The final movement was a type of carnival ride that didn’t leave you with a melody, but with something much better: life!

Ending with the popular Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was a great programmatic choice. Familiar to many in the audience and able to show off the varied talent of the performers, it was the perfect end to another successful opening night for our own Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra.

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