Night of Russian music proves SPAC highlight

Giancarlo Guerrero
Albany Times Union

By Priscilla McLean

Something wonderful happened at SPAC on Thursday night. The Philadelphia Orchestra showed its true colors, that of a top orchestra in best form, thanks to the charismatic and masterful guidance of guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero.

During the first piece, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, the orchestra served mainly as accompanist as Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero performed the demanding piano solo with exquisite accuracy and expression.

Before Rachmaninoff composed this work, he had been in a deep depression and unable to compose until several sessions of hypnotism and auto-suggestion unlocked his mind and set him on a course to write this, the most famous and popular piece of his career. The music, abounding with rich melodies and Romantic harmonies, is still a great favorite with audiences.

Afterwards, Montero asked for a theme for her to improvise upon, and one of the violinists played the opening bassoon melody from Stravinsky's ''Rite of Spring.'' She then gave a 10-minute improvisation that began with some dissonant harmonies, quickly morphed into music echoing Debussy, then the Russian composer Scriabin, and finally music much like the Rachmaninoff she had just performed. While the improvisation needed some focus, her technical skill was unsurpassed.

The second half of the program was devoted to Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, a showcase for both orchestra and conductor. Maestro Guerrero was completely in control, and showed great sensitivity in phrasing and tempo. His showmanship was on full display as he conducted the more-than-hour-long work without a score, suavely danced while conducting during the second movement two and generally kept the orchestra and audience on its toes throughout, reminiscent of the late Leonard Bernstein.

Prokofiev's music varies from broad Russian melodies and full sound to jumpy, schizoid lurching. Movement three builds to an agonized scream from the brass with percussion, sinking to a poignant, soulful melody.

By the fourth movement the music becomes ebullient and sparkling, with a joyful ending. The orchestra was dazzling, spectacular, on top of every note, and made the evening one of the finest all year.