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Columbia Orchestra mines gems of Russia


The Columbia Orchestra will head for the heart of Mother Russia on Saturday without ever leaving the friendly confines of Howard Community College's Smith Theatre.

Music Director Jason Love has elected to conclude the orchestra's 2000-2001 season with a pair of works at the epicenter of Russian Romanticism: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony and the sumptuously melodic "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

A short, hyperactive burst of American minimalism - John Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" - will round out the program. The soloist in the "Paganini Rhapsody" will be Ukrainian pianist Inna Faliks, winner of Peabody Institute's 1999 Yale Gordon Concerto Competition.

Faliks has performed throughout the United States with such conductors as the National Symphony's Leonard Slatkin and Keith Lockhart of the Boston Pops and the Utah Symphony.

The work she will play is one of the true stunners of the piano repertoire. Indeed, anyone silly enough to dismiss Rachmaninoff as a hyper-romantic slushmeister receives his comeuppance from this superbly crafted set of 24 variations for piano and orchestra.

The theme the composer chose comes from a Caprice for Solo Violin written by Niccolo Paganini, composer and wizard of 19th- century violin playing.

Rachmaninoff turns Paganini's tune every which way but loose through the course of the piece. He speeds it up and he slows it down. He plays cat-and-mouse with it, going so far as to mix it with the portentous "Dies Irae" (Day of Wrath) theme taken from Christian plainchant.

And in the much-loved, eagerly anticipated 18th Variation, he simply inverts the theme, instructs his performers to go lyrical and lush, and bathes our souls with one of the most heavenly melodic interludes the world has ever known.

Igor Stravinsky described Rachmaninoff as "the only pianist I have ever seen who did not grimace." Anyone who could write music this gorgeous wouldn't be grimacing, either.

Poor Tchaikovsky, one of music history's most tortured souls, didn't know whether to grimace upon completing his 5th Symphony in E minor. "I have not blundered; it has turned out well," he said after finishing the final orchestration in 1888.

Yet he grew dissatisfied with the work after its St. Petersburg premiere, and it took an enthusiastic response in Germany - where no less a listener than Johannes Brahms embraced it - for the symphony to climb back into its creator's good graces.

The work has never left the good graces of the music-loving public.

Moving past its rather morose opening in the lower registers of the woodwind section, Movement I becomes a heady, energetic, deliciously syncopated sojourn through a variety of emotions.

The hushed, nocturne-like horn solo in II is one of Peter Ilyich's most beguiling melodies, and we are reminded in Movement III that Johann Strauss wasn't the only 19th-century composer who knew how to write a waltz.

The riveting climaxes of the Finale return us to music critic Neville Cardus' marvelous description of Tchaikovsky's music as "a thrilling case of nerves."

The Columbia Orchestra will perform its season finale at 8 p.m. Saturday at Smith Theatre, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Tickets are $12; $10 for seniors ages 65 and older; and $9 for full-time students. Information: 410-381- 2004. To request transportation for a senior citizen: 410-715-3087 at least 24 hours before the concert.

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