(Pianist Conrad Tao)

(Pianist Conrad Tao)

By Montague Gammon III

A familiar but exotic sounding piece of “stunning” Russian choral and orchestral music, compounded by the composer-chemist Alexander Borodin, kicks off Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s first Classics Series concert of the 2016-2017 Season.

Music Director and conductor JoAnn Falletta calls the “Russian Fireworks” triplet of Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, Igor Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 a “brilliantly hued program [of] spectacular music.”

Polovtsian Dances, originally a ballet in his 1890 opera Prince Igor, was recycled in the 1953 Broadway musical Kismet as the tune of “Stranger in Paradise.” Vocal and instrumental versions of the song have been cropping up ever since in recordings, greatest hits lists, in the film of the Kurt Vonnegut novel Breakfast of Champions, in the 1956 B&W British sci-fi flick Fire Maidens from Outer Space, and even in one of the Russ Meyer Vixen movies.

(Falletta calls Borodin “a fascinating person,” noting that he was famous in medical circles for his work as a research chemist, that he started “the first medical school for women in Russia,” and that he was “devoted to the idea of a Russian music,” that did not follow the prevailing Germanic style.)

Stravinsky extracted four suites from his 1911 ballet Petrouchka to make the 1947 orchestral version that the VSO will play. The title character is a puppet magically endowed with independent movement, and inadvertently with human feelings. (Petrouchka is pretty much the same as Britain’s Punch and, of course, Italy’s Pinocchio.)

Falletta said, in a telephone interview, that Stravinsky “Painted a picture” of Petroushka’s “tragic tale” that plays out against the background of a Russian fair; imbuing the music with an “undertone of danger “amid the festivities.”

The concert closing concerto – “Rachmaninoff at his most luxurious” – has carried with it “the legend” that it is the “Everest of piano concertos,” she said.

The composer was also a virtuoso pianist, writing Concerto #3 for his first American tour in 1909. It’s “a glorious piece!” in Falletta’s words, “a great vehicle for the orchestra” as well as for the soloist and, she points out, a crowd pleaser as well.

Conrad Tao solos here; he’s a 22-year-old phenomenon who has been racking up awards, applause and seriously important commissions since his professional debut at the age of 8 and who, like Rachmaninoff, is both performer and composer.

From Russia the VSO season moves to Hispanic America for a concert called “Latin Rhythms” – “Lots of very dramatic music,” says Falletta – tied to a Chrysler Museum exhibit of Pre-Columbian Art.

American George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture leads into the works of three Mexican composers: Manuel Ponce’s 1941 Guitar Concerto and Jose Pablo Moncayo’s Huapango of the same year, and Silvestre Revueltas’ film score of 1939, Night of the Mayas.

Soloist for the Concerto will be Celil Refik Kaya, 2012 First Prize winner in the Buffalo Philharmonic’s JoAnn Falletta International Guitar Concerto Competition.

A classical season without Beethoven is like … well, it’s “like” unimaginable, and this year – Da Da Da Daaaa! – it’s Symphony No. 5: probably the most widely played classical piece on the planet, with arguably the most widely recognized four note opening in all of music.

This performance will be conducted by Danny Matsukawa, former VSO Principal Bassoon, whose instrumental talents – “a magnificent player” says Falletta – will be featured in the accompanying Mozart Bassoon Concerto. Moscow born Sergei Prokofiev’s 1916-17 neoclassical Symphony No. 1, “a perfect piece, an affectionate, smiling tribute to the classical period, written when he was a student,” will open the concert.

Virginia Symphony Orchestra Chorusmaster Robert Shoup leads both chorus and orchestra this December, for the Orchestra’s traditional performance of Handel’s Messiah.

Then “The Four Seasons” puts Resident Conductor Benjamin Rous on the podium with VSO members soloing as Vivaldi’s quartet of violin concertos, Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter (c. 1720), alternate with Vivaldi’s Concerto for Piccolo and his Concerto for Two Trumpets, and with works by opera pioneer Monteverdi and 17th Century BohemianAustrian composer/violinist Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber.

Falletta takes up the baton again, with the “fabulous Finnish-American violinist” Elina Vähälä soloing, for “A Night at the Movies.”

She calls Bernard Herrmann’s “Vertigo Suite,” John Corigliano’s “Chaconne from The Red Violin,” Aaron Copland’s “Suite from The Red Pony,” and Gershwin’s An American in Paris “classical music [by] great composers who chose to write for the movies.”

“Pictures at a French Exhibition” will feature the Women of the VSO Chorus in another Chrysler Museum linked program, in conjunction with the Museum’s Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit. Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano concerto No. 2, with international touring and recording pianist Alon Goldstein, splits Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and his Nocturnes. Albert Roussel’s “Bacchus et Ariane Suite No. 2,” extracted by the composer from his 1930 ballet, wraps up the concert.

Verdi’s Requiem, “which is sometimes called ‘Verdi’s greatest opera’,” showcases the Chorus under Shoup and the orchestra under Falletta, who says it “Stands alone among the requiems.”

The “Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5” Season finale opens with New York born Charles Tomlinson Griffes’ 1917 Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan, which Falletta describes as “music of great beauty, subtlety and nuance.”

Then brothers David and Michael Daniels, countertenor and cellist, join forces for the world premiere of what Falletta promises will be a “something special for this closing of the season.”

That’s Kenneth Fuch’s especially commissioned song cycle Poems of Life.

The 2016-17 Classics Series ends, as it began, with a Russian work. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s penultimate symphony (1888) is, in Falletta’s words, “justy beloved for its poetry and its majesty and melodic invention and tremendous architecture.”

Such recognition suggests that Borodin’s goal of establishing Russian music in its own right did come to pass.


Virginia Symphony Orchestra 2016-17 Classics Schedule


Russian Fireworks!

Sept. 23, 2016, 8 p.m., Ferguson Center for the Arts, Newport News

Sept. 24, 2016, 8 p.m., Chrysler Hall, Norfolk

Sept. 25, 2016, 2:30 p.m., Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, Virginia Beach


Latin Rhythms

Oct. 21, 2016, 8 p.m., Ferguson Center

Oct. 22, 2016, 8 p.m., Chrysler Hall


Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5

Oct. 30, 2:30 p.m., Sandler Center


Handel’s Messiah

Dec. 16, 8 p.m., First Baptist Church of Newport News

Dec. 17, 8 p.m., Harrison Opera House, Norfolk


The Four Seasons

Jan. 20, 2017, 8 p.m., Ferguson Center

Jan. 21, 2017, 8 p.m., Chrysler Hall

Jan. 22, 2017, 2:30 p.m., Sandler Center


A Night at the Movies

Feb. 10, 2017, 8 p.m., Ferguson Center

Feb. 11, 2017, 8 p.m., Chrysler Hall

Feb. 12, 2017, 2:30 p.m., Sandler Center


Pictures at a French Exhibition

Mar. 3, 2017, 8 p.m., Ferguson Center for the Arts

Mar. 4, 2017, 8 p.m., Chrysler Hall

Mar. 5, 2017, 2:30 p.m., Sandler Center


Verdi’s Requiem

Mar. 17, 8 p.m., Ferguson Center

Mar. 18, 8 p.m., Chrysler Hall

Mar. 19, 2:30 p.m., Sandler Center


Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5

Apr. 7, 8 p.m., Ferguson Center

Apr. 8, 8 p.m., L. Douglas Wilder Performing Arts Center, Norfolk

Apr. 9, 2:30 p.m., Sandler Center