Symphony review: RSO produces another winter classic

With the winner of the competition for the Ridgefield Symphony’s new music director to be announced in January, Eric Mahl, the fourth and final competitor for the position, manned the podium last Saturday evening at the Anne S. Richardson Auditorium for a well-chosen program that was both musically satisfying and sufficiently varied to showcase Maestro Mahl’s command and artistry. Beginning with what was collectively labeled as “Maestro’s Winter Suite,” the program also featured Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with the impressive Russian-born pianist Dmitri Novgorodsky as soloist, and culminated in Tchaikovsky’s expansively moving Fifth Symphony.

“Maestro’s Winter Suite,” a clever pastiche of excerpts from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije Suite, Glazunov’s The Seasons, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden, performed as if they were movements of a single work, proved to be a wonderful substitute for a traditional overture, moving through various moods and ending in the brilliant onrush of Rimski-Korsakov’s Dance of the Tumblers. Both the Maestro’s fine conducting technique and his orchestra’s sensitive responses to his interpretive leadership were in fine display.

Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is a persuasive example of Rachmaninoff’s ability to meld musical expressiveness and exciting virtuoso display, and pianist Novgorodsky’s performance would have pleased the composer. His virtuosic technique is impressive, but even more impressive is his ability to integrate his technical mastery, his interpretive sensitivity, and his awareness that his performance is part of a collaborative configuration — an awareness made obvious by both his frequent glances toward the podium and the musical result. The performance was, in consequence, both technically exciting and musically satisfying.

Prior to the concert, Mahl had spoken a couple of times to audiences about Tchaikovsky’s feelings around the time he composed his fifth symphony, about how those feelings found expression in his music, and about what to listen for in the music. I’m sure that the listening experience of those who heard him speak was sharpened by his words, but Mahl’s understanding on its own was evident in his interpretation and (of course) in the orchestra’s responses to it. As a former orchestral performer myself, I can testify to the excellence of his conducting, and as an experienced listener I can speak to the quality of the interpretation and performance. The phrasings, shadings, and sectional management were both communicated and responded to throughout, and individual solo voices — bassoon, clarinet, oboe, etc. — were notably fine, and especially, of course, the solo horn performance by principal horn Sara Della Posta in the symphony’s extraordinarily beautiful second movement.

All things considered, it was a stellar performance.