Was that really an American orchestra onstage?
And is all Russian music that loud?
With Pinchas Steinberg at the podium, it was easy to close your eyes and be transported — to mother Russia for explosive bursts of history, tragedy and national pride, and to Central Europe for the lush sound of an Old World orchestra, steeped in tradition and glorious in its combination of technical skill and emotional content.
Steinberg, 66, is a tall, imposing man who bounds to the podium and expects the same energy from his players. Even more impressive than the volume and fierce momentum he drew from the orchestra was the sound he created, richly Romantic and beautifully balanced, reflecting his many years at the helm of orchestras in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and opera engagements throughout Europe. The hometown orchestra does not often depart from its trademark clean, disciplined approach; for Steinberg, it willingly expanded its sonic palette.
The Russian repertoire is a lot broader than last night’s program, a florid trio of narrative pieces recounting great legends and battles, would suggest. But no complaints; this is the kind of fare that rearranges a novice’s notion of what classical music can be, yet offers plenty of substance for aficionados — and the conductor. Moreover, it’s highly entertaining, and Steinberg took full advantage of the drama and atmospherics in the scores without sacrificing a whit of technical expertise.
From the opening trumpet clarion call of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Suite from The Golden Cockerel, the conductor’s approach was clear: vivid colors in the horns and woodwinds, swirling, sometimes rapturous strings, and crisp, driving percussion. This piece is a serious workout for the entire orchestra, with every section taking a turn in building up to a thundering climax, which under Steinberg’s high-reaching baton surely left some ears in the house ringing. The quieter moments afforded an opportunity to marvel at the 3D sound image that he created, a technical construct that is difficult to achieve, especially for a visiting conductor.
Working without a score, as he did throughout the entire evening, Steinberg cranked up the volume much earlier in Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, a symphonic fantasy that is like a “best of” the composer’s work, ranging from full orchestral melodrama and feverish maelstroms to small, finely crafted accents — an enchanting countermelody from a trio of flutes, Nutcrackeresque flourishes from dual harps. The trip to Hades was never rendered with more anguish and enthusiasm, which left this critic feeling happily pummeled by intermission, having already lost count of how many internal and external storms had raged across the stage.
After all that, Prokofiev’s cantata from his score for Eisenstein’s 1938 film Alexander Nevsky, seemed almost anticlimactic — which would seem impossible for music that changed cinematic history, and includes a full mixed chorus and mezzo-soprano soloist. Still, the seven-movement structure imposes some limitations, as do the choral parts, in particular the second movement, with its odd piano celebration of a rousing military victory. But Steinberg made the idea of watching a film seemed superfluous in the fifth movement, bringing Prokofiev’s graphic treatment of the famed “Battle on Ice” to life with cyclonic intensity.
The mezzo-soprano’s part is brief and limited to sixth movement, which didn’t give Sasha Cooke a chance to show much. Her voice is darker and bigger than one would expect, and was a very good fit with the material. The chorus sounded sharp, more so on the female side, especially in the fourth movement.
At the end, there were European double kisses for Cooke, a round of hand-shaking in the orchestra, and individual acknowledgements for almost every section in the orchestra before Steinberg finally stepped back on the podium to take his bows. Here’s hoping he returns soon, and next time brings some Shostakovich.