Just got back from the Richly Russian program performed by the Symphony Silicon Valley — that's the reason this blog entry is on the 21st instead of the 20th, as is usually scheduled. I wanted to include a review of the performance I heard today… yeah, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Ahem. To continue! :)

The Richly Russian program was whipped together in almost no time, which impressed the heck out of me. It was the replacement for the musical performance of the originally-scheduled Porgy & Bess, since (due to various accidents) the symphony lost the singing abilities of both their "Porgy" and their "Bess" — within days of each other, and in less than a month of the scheduled performances! The show must go on, however, as the old saying goes, and so the Symphony played Glière's "Russian Sailors' Dance" from the ballet The Red Poppy, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor with Gabriela Montero as soloist, and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 in B Flat.

I particularly enjoy performances by the Symphony Silicon Valley because prior to each performance they have one of their musicians — she's one of the violists, if I'm remembering correctly — give a short talk for about an hour on the pieces they're going to perform. She includes fun information about the histories of the composers and the times they lived in, quotes from reviewers of the original performances, descriptions of the music itself and what we should expect, etc. She increases my appreciation dramatically, and I know at least one of my housemates goes to the symphony specifically because of these fascinating little intros.

So, on to the music! Glière's piece is short, bouncy, and well known — I recognized it and enjoyed it quite a bit. I was amused, previous to the performance, to hear a bit of its history, however: apparently the ballet The Red Poppy is very much about the rebellion of the Chinese "coolies" on a particular dock, when faced with cruel (possibly bourgeoisie? ;-) ) overlords — and assisted by a sympathetic crew from a Russian ship. It appears Glière, while rather apolitical himself, was quite handy at composing for the government's tastes! You can hear the music, if you wish, here on youtube.com: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJgZ-GiPlvM

The Rachmaninoff concerto had only three movements, which is unusual to me but quite possibly is the norm for then. I couldn't say, as I did not recognize the concerto, and I'm not wildly familiar with Rachmaninoff either. It was a nice, dramatic piece, though; somewhat atonal in places but not annoyingly so. It was also graced with a truly amazing pianist — if you ever get a chance to see Gabriela Montero, I highly recommend her. Not only was she obviously moved by the music she was playing, but she also clearly enjoys her job!

She is apparently renowned for her improvisations, for which she asks suggestions from the audience, and today was a great example of her skill. At the end of her performance of the Rachmaninoff with the symphony, she played a lovely and classical sounding improvisational piece on Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" (which she didn't recognize, but improvised for beautifully regardless), and then played another encore for a very eager lady's request of "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music — this one deliciously jazzy sounding. The only regret I had during "My Favorite Things" was that apparently somewhere in the hall someone's oxygen tank was malfunctioning, and so we had a couple of quite loud, sharp hisses that occurred during Montero's performance. However, she was a professional, of course, and carried on beautifully.

I loved the spontaneous feeling this type of encore gave. For example, when Montero didn't recognize "Blue Skies," she asked the symphony members if they knew it and could play the first line or two for her — and spontaneously they all sang the first two lines! Also, the woman who wanted "My Favorite Things" was up in the balcony (as were we) and waving excitedly. It made me smile to hear people shouting, "Up on the balcony!" to direct Montero's attention that way — I thought that was sweet.

I really wish I knew how to properly communicate in text how wonderfully she played, as I would love to share that pleasure with you. Alas, I can only communicate my enthusiasm, so that's what I'll have to settle for. Montero closed with a version of a dance from her native land, Venezuela, and I believe she deserved every bit of applause she received; it's no surprise to me that people were coming back from previous performances in order to hear her again. She gave us a wonderfully sincere-feeling and charming set of encores.

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