The Minnesota Orchestra's three-week Russian music festival got off to a bright and thoughtful start Thursday morning at Orchestra Hall.
While it's unlikely that anyone in the audience suddenly had the illusion that he or she was cruising down the Volga with a glass of vodka in hand, the mix of minimal but intriguing exhibits in the lobby from the collection of the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis along with a program of interesting works led by the gifted young conductor Courtney Lewis provided at least a hint of atmosphere.
The repertoire was unusual, and there was a subtle coherence to the four works performed. Shostakovich's son, Maxim, gave the premiere of his father's seldom-heard Piano Concerto No. 2 on Maxim's 19th birthday in 1957 while a student at the Moscow Conservatory. Prokofiev, 45 years earlier, gave the premiere of his own Piano Concerto No. 1 when he was 21 and a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.
There's more. Tchaikovsky's incidental music to "The Snow Maiden," a play by Alexander Ostrovsky, opened the concert. The closer was Divertimento, the Symphonic Suite from Stravinsky's ballet "The Fairy's Kiss," a reworking of piano pieces and songs by Tchaikovsky.
The tone in much of this music is light and witty — charming character pieces in the case of "The Snow Maiden" and unmistakably satirical gestures in the case of the Shostakovich, which makes fun of student exercises for the piano. And the Prokofiev displays the kind of nose-thumbing insolence that was to characterize so much of this composer's music.
None of this, that is, evinced the Western notion of Russian music, which is still thought to be heavy and emotional and embedded with vague notions of "Russian and Slavic soul," music that is supposedly instinctual and primitive rather than cerebral. Richard Taruskin, the eminent scholar of Russian music, has been calling these stereotypes nonsense — and possibly racist — for decades. Tchaikovsky's musical idol, after all, was Mozart.
Lewis, the orchestra's former associate conductor and now music director of the Jacksonville (Fla.) Symphony and assistant at the New York Philharmonic, drew precise, energetic and persuasive performances from the orchestra in both the Tchaikovsky and the Stravinsky works, and he proved to be an astute collaborator in the two concertos, played with superb panache by the Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein. The pianist's delicate phrasing of the slow movement of the Shostakovich, sounding like Poulenc, simple lines supported by a halo of strings, was a memorable moment.
As a brief encore, Lewis led the orchestra in the final pages of Stravinsky's "The Firebird," and, at the start, as a tribute to Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus, who died last month, he conducted "Veil of Tears," from "To Be Certain of the Dawn," a work the orchestra premiered in 2005 and later recorded.
Michael Anthony writes about music.