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Peabody Symphony Orchestra opens season with Brahms, Tchaikovsky

Marianna Prjevalskaya
(Xun Wang)

The last weekend of September could not have been much more caloric, musically speaking, without actually clogging arteries.

While the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was reveling in the high romanticism of Rachmaninoff and Korngold (my review was posted earlier), the Peabody Symphony Orchestra gorged on hefty emotional outpouring by Brahms and Tchaikovsky. I rather enjoyed both lyrical feasts.

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On Saturday night, Hajime Teri Murai, director of orchestral activities at Peabody for more than two decades, got the conservatory's 2014-2015 concert series rocking with a crisp, jazzy little curtain raiser, Shafer Mahoney's "Sparkle." The student orchestra put the music's jaunty spirits across nicely.

Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 found conductor and ensemble in less persuasive form -- Murai's spacious shaping of the first two movements needed more tension; assorted intonation and articulation smudges took a toll on the playing -- but the soloist had no trouble making an impact.

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Marianna Prjevalskaya, a student of Boris Slutsky working on her doctoral degree at Peabody, already has a serious career going, with recordings and international concert engagements. She gave every indication on this occasion that she will continue to succeed.

The pianist tore into the concerto with evident ease and lots of temperament. I would have welcomed a little more tonal warmth or subtlety in places, but Prjevalskaya's phrasing commanded attention for its expressive sinew. She proved especially impressive in the athletic finale, negotiating the music with technique to spare and a great sense of spontaneity.

Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, a four-act drama suggesting man against, and getting the better of, fate, seemed to fire up Murai and orchestra alike.

The conductor tapped deeply into the score's inner anxieties and passions. Phrasing was admirably flexible, but with a taut energy underneath. Murai missed no opportunity to drive propulsive sections of the first movement along, and he set a bracing clip for the scherzo that still allowed the music's charm to be felt.

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Given all of that propulsive flair, I knew Murai would charge into the finale, but I was still surprised by the ferocious clip he set -- he seemed determined to match, if not break, the dizzying speed and expressive heat famously achieved long ago on disc by Evgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic.

The Peabody players rose to the occasion, meeting most of the technical challenges and demonstrating a passionate involvement that some professional ensembles have trouble mustering. The strings especially impressed; so did timpanist Jisu Jung. Woodwinds and brass could have been cleaner in execution, but they offered a good deal of character.

A thoroughly exhilarating performance.

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