Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra bring joy to Carnegie Hall

United StatesUnited States Various: Kian Soltani (cello), Musica Sacra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko (conductor). Carnegie Hall, New York, 31.1.2022. (RP)

Kian Soltani (cello), Vasily Petrenko (conductor) and RPO © Richard Termine

Britten – ‘Four Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes, Op.33a
Elgar – Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
HolstThe Planets, Op.32

It has been 25 years since the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra played Carnegie Hall, and the orchestra, its conductor and the audience were in a celebratory mood.

This was the last concert in the RPO’s cross-country tour celebrating their 75th anniversary; it began in California with stops in Florida, Virginia and New Jersey. In his opening remarks, Vasily Petrenko, who became the orchestra’s music director in August 2021, said with justifiable pride that the RPO was the first European orchestra to tour the US since 2020, surmounting the logistical challenges that mark such a venture at present.

This was Petrenko’s second appearance in Carnegie Hall. The first was in November 2019 when he conducted the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra on just a few hours’ notice, replacing the late Mariss Jansons. It was his debut both at Carnegie Hall and in New York, and Petrenko left indelible memories with that performance. His return has been much anticipated which undoubtedly helped to account for the full house.

The other factors, of course, were the RPO itself and the music which had been programmed. Holst’s The Planets was undoubtedly the biggest draw: the enthusiastic audience applauded after almost every movement. All three works on the program resonate with the present day as each was composed during or immediately after the great wars of the twentieth century. As Petrenko pointed out, it is music that can provide insights into coping with the complexities of present-day life.

Vasily Petrenko (conductor) © Richard Termine

In spite of the somber tone of the program, it was really great fun as well. Petrenko’s youthful appearance and energy belie that fact that he is now 45. At his most exuberant, he jumps into the air, and his left arm, with long elegant fingers extending its reach, is a marvel to watch. The pure pleasure that he derives from making music carries over into the house.

His equal in all regards was Kian Soltani, the soloist in Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Composed in 1919, Elgar described the concerto as reflecting ‘a man’s attitude to life’. It found little favor with contemporary audiences and critics accustomed to his more expansive, often ebullient, style emblematic of the British Empire at its zenith. Only in the 1960s, did it gain a foothold in the repertoire.

Soltani is a dynamic, captivating performer, who plays with equal measures of eloquence, freedom and feeling. His face and body reflected every emotion that coursed through the music. He and Petrenko were in perfect sync: phrases grew organically as soloist yielded to orchestra and vice versa. Technically he was flawless but, as with Petrenko, watching him play is an integral part of the experience.

One would expect no less than brilliant performances of the Britten and Holst from the RPO, and there were no disappointments whatsoever. The sound shimmered as delicately as the sun dancing off the sea in the first three Britten interludes, while the brass and timpani vividly captured the tumult of a storm at sea in the final one.

Holst insisted that the music of his enduringly popular orchestral suite bore no connection whatsoever to either the planets or the mythological deities after which they were named, but has anyone ever believed him? And at this juncture does it matter? The music has appeared in so many guises that it exists on a plane which its composer never could have imagined. All an audience expects is that it be expertly performed with all the drama, mystery and polish that an orchestra can muster. Petrenko, the RPO, as well as Musica Sacra’s off-stage voices in the finale, checked all of the boxes.

Soltani and Petrenko both turned to Russian composers for encores. As befits a musician who gives of himself so generously, Soltani shared the spotlight with an ensemble of RPO cellists in his arrangement of Shostakovich’s melancholy, lyrical Introduction from The Gadfly, a 1955 Soviet-era film for which he composed the score. Petrenko and the RPO brought the evening to an end with a sparkling performance of ‘The Dance of the Tumblers’ from Tchaikovsky’s incidental music to Alexander Ostrovsky’s play The Snow Maiden.

Rick Perdian

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