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Princeton Symphony Thrills Audience with Soloist, Explores Depth of Russian Symphonic Repertoire

Nancy Plum

The early 20th century in the former Soviet Union was pretty bleak for the arts. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and subsequent regimes of Lenin and Stalin squashed creative expression under the ideology of Communism, yet true artists will produce, no matter what the circumstances. Mark Laycock and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra presented a mini-survey of some of these musical ideas on Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium with a program of music by Dmitri Kabalevsky, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Sergei Prokofiev. Featured in the Shostakovich violin concerto presented was soloist Yuri Mazurkevich, an electrifying performer who emigrated from Ukraine, bringing much of the true Russian flair for virtuoso playing with him.

Shostakovich's Concerto No. 1 in A minor for Violin in Orchestra was completed in 1947, the last few years of Stalin's demonic reign, yet did not come to public attention until the mid-1950s. The solo line is continuous, with the violin almost never breathing through the four movements of the work. Mr. Mazurkevich began the solo part in the first movement "Nocturne" rather plainly, with nothing fancy, but soon demonstrated performance fire and furious playing, especially in the thoughtful and meditative cadenza which linked the third and fourth movements. Despite the virtuoso playing required from the soloist in this cadenza, Mr. Mazurkevich conveyed the emotion of the time in which the concerto was written. Mr. Laycock held the work together well, especially in the third movement "Passacaglia," in which the variations flow seamlessly.

Mr. Laycock preceded the Shostakovich with a short work by one of his contemporaries, but from the "second tier" of Russian composers. Dmitri Kabalevsky's opera Colas Breugnon, composed in 1936, has not survived into the repertory, but its five minute brisk overture, full of musical whirling dervishes and saucy brass, was presented crisply by the Princeton Symphony. The mariachi-type brass in the third section was especially clean, as was the percussion section, led by crisp playing on the marimba.

The third composer represented on the program, Prokofiev, carried the structure and formality of the 19th century into his 20th century symphonic works. Symphony #7 in C# minor was composed amid similar circumstances to Shostakovich; Prokofiev actually composed two endings, one along "party lines" and a second to his own liking. Although this piece, like the Shostakovich, began with dark string sounds (one can only take so much mournfulness in an afternoon), Mr. Laycock kept the piece light through its sweeping lines, subdued brass and clean melodies, as well as by finding humor in the forceful waltz of the second movement.

The wind instruments shone in this piece, including James Button on the English horn, clarinetist David Hattner, and flutist Jayn Rosenfeld. Harpist André Tarantiles added a delicate touch to the rather traditional orchestration, especially when the harp was combined with the flute and shimmering violas.

Although these pieces were written during a dark period in Russian history, there is lightness in the music and classical crispness that enabled the works to supersede their times. The Princeton Symphony made an enjoyable afternoon out of these rarely performed pieces, and once again demonstrated why the ensemble is one of the better regional orchestras around.

The Princeton Symphony Orchestra's next concert is on January 18. Featured will be music of Schumann, Ibert, Bach and Poulenc, and an accordion concerto by Koprowski. Call (609) 497-0020.

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