For those who braved the rainy weather on Saturday, December 8, the concert at the California Theatre in San Jose by Symphony Silicon Valley with Pietro Rizzo conducting proved most auspicious. Assisted by Armenian piano virtuoso Nareh Arghamanyan in the Piano Concerto in D-flat Major by Aram Khachaturian, all participants generated a colossal excitement in the course of this percussive, nationalist testament to the spirit of the Caucasus. Complementing the vivid colors of the 1936 Khachaturian Concerto, we had Rizzi’s conducting works by Glinka and Brahms that demonstrated a refined and sensitive approach to familiar staples that had the power to sound refreshed in their easy panache and suave execution.
Conductor Rizzi began with Mikhail Glinka’s popular 1842 Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla, based on an extravagant fairy tale from Alexandre Pushkin. Given Russia’s lack of a classical, symphonic tradition prior to Glinka’s contribution, the country had to import foreign musicians, particularly from Italy, to train their prospective talents. The Italian influence came forth in stunning string colors and swift scale passages as Ludmilla is kidnapped by the evil sorcerer Chernomor. Our hero, Ruslan, however, enjoyed the full-blooded cello theme from Act II that marks his undying love and commitment to rescue his princess. The insertion of a whole-tone scale to portray the evil Chernomor certainly added a new dimension to the Russian musical palette, though its passing shadow did not dissuade the final measures from radiating a glowing and triumphant D Major coda.
To hear the Khachaturian Piano Concerto in a live performance allows us to witness a real, overblown vehicle for all concerned, including the presence of a musical saw for the Andante con anima second movement, provided courtesy of guest-instrumentalist Caroline McCaskey. The music conforms, politically speaking, to the Soviet aesthetic of the period: that “Soviet Realism” demanded a direct communication with the common people, even if the harmonies and ostinatos ring of Gershwin, Jazz, and Armenian folk music, at once. Soloist Nareh Arghamanyan, sporting a sleek red dress and Rapunzel tresses, infused a dramatic and demonic devotion to her assigned task, performing the often grueling hammer blows and huge spans that would suddenly devolve into sweet treacle or exotic lyricism. A kind of Hollywood aura hangs over the score, for its richly opulent orchestration intended to embrace the full palette of expressive possibility. The ardent ambitions of the composer truly emerge in the grand finale, Allegro brilliante, which might be characterized “kitchen-sink music,” given the girth of the combined sounds in which Arghamanyan’s part contributed a piano obbligato besides her formidable assemblage of blustery effects, including a kind of cyclic return to the opening movement’s heavy declamations. Despite the gaudy impetuosity of the piece, its striking nationalism in the most overt sense, our soloist and conductor managed to transcend its merely effective means to invoke some potent moments of melodic charm, we simply must concede to Aram Khachaturian. As a much-demanded encore, Ms. Arghamanyan displayed her own charisma in a free fantasy on Johann Strauss’s operetta Die Fledermaus.” It was a ravishing and stupendous sojourn into volatile bravura on a level we usually assign to Earl Wild and Raymond Lewenthal.
Conductor Rizzo had his own authentic moment in the evening’s finale, the 1877 Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73. Already a work of generally bucolic eminence, the music assumed a larger canvas by having Rizzi take the first movement, Allegro non troppo’s repeat. Rizzo did in fact emphasize the sunny and congenial aspects of the music. But he held the more ominous aspects of the opening motif and its undercurrents at the ready, allowing their dense and agogically impatient energies their due. Brahms always maintains the demeanor of a stoic, in light or in shadow. The glorious cello melody that emerges in the midst of the occasional mortal storms had the direct lyricism that took this auditor back to Bruno Walter. If the string and cello choirs of the SSV shone, there were minor lapses in the horns and brass. Nevertheless, the poignant, romantic optimism of the work rested relatively unscathed. The most affecting movement lay in the Adagio non troppo, in which the lingering sense of tragedy hovers, in spite of seductive sunlight. The woodwinds, especially the oboes, clarinets and bassoons, resonated in an intimate manner suggestive of the younger Brahms of the Serenade, Op. 11. The light Intermezzo cavorted delicately with its two trios, perhaps in homage to Mendelssohn and Schumann. At long last, the Allegro con spirito leaped forth, moving in sporadic gestures forward and back, until a tremendous D Major flourish could announce a sense of personal triumph. All this evening, tympanist Alex Orfaly had made a distinct and formidable presence, through resolute Glinka, much of Khachaturian’s outer movements, and in quiet, subtle, then exclamatory terms, in Brahms. That he received some due appreciation from conductor Rizzi confirmed our impression of this gifted conductor as both a Brahmsian and a generator of musical comradeship.