Columbus Symphony: Lilya, Gregory, Bach and Shostakovich

Gregory Vajda conducts in Columbus this weekend(Photo: Columbus Symphony/MusArt)
Gregory Vajda conducts in Columbus this weekend(Photo: Columbus Symphony/MusArt)

This weekend, the Columbus Symphony presents music by Bach, Stravinsky, Beethoven and Shostakovich Friday and Saturday night at 8 and Sunday at 2 in the Southern Theater. Gregory Vajda conducts, with pianist Lilya Zilberstein.  Pre-concert talks one hour  before every performance.

Rachmaninoff is not on this weekend’s program, but here’s a sample of Lilya’s playing:

A rich man buys his wife diamonds and a mink coat for their wedding anniversary (he’d better).  A rich man who was a diplomat, art collector and historian gives his wife a new work by  the world’s foremost composer. I’m assuming Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss had enough bling. Igor Stravinsky’s Concerto is E flat for Chamber Orchestra was Robert Bliss’s gift to his wife. The work was soon named after the Bliss Estate just outside Washington D.C., Dumbarton Oaks.

Stravinsky prepared a 12-minute three-movement piece for chamber orchestra. It is said he turned to J.S. Bach and the Brandenburg Concerti for inspiration. Bach wrote the Brandenburgs to catch the attention of a wealthy patron. By 1946 Stravinsky didn’t need any more attention, but he welcomed commissions and welcomed the cash. That said, Dumbarton Oaks mimics the form of baroque music somewhat, and gives lovely solo opportunities for flute and clarinet. Dumbarton Oaks begins at a good clip and continues its forward momentum with humor and with charm.

Speaking of Bach, have you wondered how it is that J.S. wrote concerti for piano when that instrument was barely in use in Bach’s time? OK, even if you haven’t, the fact is there are a good many keyboard concerti written by J.S. Bach, except very few of them were written for the keyboard. Keyboard is Bach’s time was most certainty a clavichord.

This is a small suitcase shaped instrument. It has little volume but more expression than the harpsichord. Rosalyn Tureck argues that the harpsichord would have been Bach’s default instrument. These many concert were almost certainly written for other instruments. We can never be sure which ones, but suffice it to say that Bach’s keyboard concerti, whether played on harpsichord, clavichord, piano or by concert band were transcriptions and revisions.

There’s a charming story that Bach adapted all of this music to be played in a coffee-house he frequented. Coffee house or concert hall, Bach was a practical musician who knew how to entertain.

Dmitri Shostakovich was more of a commentator than an entertainer. Indeed I have thought of his music as a code for life inside the Soviet Union. Shostakovich rocketed in and out of favor with the Politburo for years. The success with the public of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was attacked in the press, almost costing the composer his life. The Piano Concerto 1 pre-dates this controversy.

In 1927, Shostakovich was one of five artists chosen to represent the U.S.S.R. at the Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw. An honorable mention was hardly the thing: Shostakovich went home and went back to work.

The First Piano Concerto comes from 1933. The unusual combination of piano and trumpet tempted the composer to call this a double concerto-even a trumpet concerto with piano. The concerto was criticized for being influenced by jazz. The first movement, alllegretto-allegro is frantic without being wild. Certainly it doesn’t sound improvised. The work’s vitality and the originality of the trumpet piano near duets make this concerto both edgy and enjoyable. I find it hints of wicked humor a commentary of the life around a musician in Leningrad 80 years ago.