“The theme of the first half of the concert is wit and whimsy,” conductor Marietta Cheng said to the audience in the Chapel at promptly 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 23. Both the main floor and the terraces were comfortably full, mostly with families from the Hamilton area, and the crowd was clapping wildly before the music even began. A grand piano had been carefully placed front and center stage, and the entire Colgate University Orchestra, formally dressed in full black outfits, had assembled. The occasional suit, tie and cummerbund also appeared, although for the most part they seemed to be signs of adult performers in the group.
“Witches can be charming,” Cheng said of the first piece: “Kikimora, Op. 63” by Anatoly Lyadov, the musical story of a Slavic mythological female house witch spirit. Lyadov, who studied under Rimsky-Korsakov, does indeed create a charming witch. At times eerie, low, cold or mournful, the introductory adagio of “Op. 63” follows Kikimora in her seven years growing up, rocked in a crystal cradle and taught ancient stories by a magician’s cat. Then, with the resounding presto, the grown Kikimora arrives with the wind, and the music of a storm – complete with strings and brass – ends not with a bang, but a whistle.
“Then Strauss scampers along with some piano pyrotechnics,” Cheng said, describing the second piece on the program, “Burleske for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 11” by Richard Strauss with Artist-in-Residence Steven Heyman.
Heyman’s piano antics were indeed explosive, and the well-known concert pianist and Syracuse native dominated the song. In fact, the piano could only be overpowered by the entire orchestra playing at once, and its swift plays up and down the keyboard at breakneck speed made the page-turner’s job difficult in the midst of all the action. A longer song, there was time in the “Burleske” for changes of emotion, from grand, to sweetly delicate, to elegantly cheerful. Every time it slowed down the slightest bit for a single moment, the piano took the opportunity to take off running, and the piece received a standing ovation.
After a brief intermission, during which the piano was moved to the back, all the musicians rose their feet to welcome Cheng back onstage to introduce the afternoon’s titular “Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47” by Dmitri Shostakovitch. The symphony’s four parts, Moderato, Allegretto, Largo andAllegro non troppo, required extensive
explanation from Cheng.
“Both highly emotional and politically charged, Shostakovitch’s “Fifth” is one of the most significant symphonies of the last 100 years. Interestingly, though, the music itself…has an inner message,” Cheng said. Written after the rejection of his satirical opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtensk” and subsequent shaming by communist government officials – including Stalin himself – Shostakovitch’s “Fifth” was described by the Soviet Union political paper Pravda as “a Soviet artist’s creative response to just criticism.”
Cheng, however, disagreed.
“Shostakovitch was able to communicate on two opposing levels – and one was an inner message of defiance and protest,” she said.
Certainly the music set the tone of a dark period, discordant throughout its movements and heavily weary, angry and even distressing. A sudden, shrill launch into a march was painful; similarly, the transition to the soft sweetness of the Largo was incredibly sad. The second movement, oddly playful, seemed to be intentionally mildly annoying; it was as if the introductory music for a cheap circus act, with overdone trills and mismatched parts, had been introduced in seriousness. Critics think it may have been intended to imitate Stalin giving a speech at a rally, said Cheng, whose intermingling of political history and musical theory gave new texture to the program.
Upcoming musical performances from the Colgate University include the Eroica Trio on March 2, “Building Blocks” from the Colgate University Chamber Players on March 9, and a luncheon musicale at 12:15 p.m. on March 13. The next performance from the Colgate University Orchestra is Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” on April 13, and all events are free, open to the public, and held on Sundays at 3:30 p.m. in the Memorial Chapel unless otherwise noted.