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RDSO, ESO spectacular

The Russians were incredibly popular in Red Deer on Friday night.

It’s not often that a classical music concert gets not one, but two standing ovations — but that’s exactly what happened when the Red Deer and Edmonton Symphony Orchestras joined forces for a spectacular A Stroll Through Red Square concert of all-Russian music at the Red Deer College Arts Centre.

And the second time audience members leapt out of their seats, their rapturous ovation compelled guest pianist Katherine Chi to make two curtain calls.

Chi, without a doubt, deserved all the appreciation. For 35 minutes, the award-winning Canadian soloist kept the crowd riveted during her passionate performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concert No. 2 in C Minor, along with the combined orchestra of 80 musicians.

The difficult piece required Chi to deliver delicate melodies, interspersed with bursts of muscular chording. The pianist managed to pull off both extremes with great sensitivity to the composer’s musical mood swings. Her performance was a marvel of precision and artistry, eliciting a brilliant spectrum of emotive sounds from her instrument.

Rachmaninov’s romanticism ignited the imaginations of many contemporary composers who wrote songs based on the concerto’s second movement — including 1940s composers Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman, who penned the Frank Sinatra hit Full Moon and Empty Arms, and 1970s pop singer Eric Carmen who composed All By Myself.

Certainly, there’s an ear-wormish appeal to the introspective melody, which washed over the full-house audience like a series of reflective waves on Friday.

Chi subtly captured the second movement’s underlying sadness, which may have mirrored Rachmaninov’s mental state at the time. After all, this work was a comeback for the composer after painfully bad reviews halted his writing career for several years.

The concerto’s lively third movement required complicated interplay was required between Chi and the orchestra — particularly the string and horn sections. All of the musicians, led by RDSO music director Claude Lapalme, pulled together beautifully to create a stirring listening experience — which well merited the second of the night’s standing ovations.

Lapalme also conducted the first piece on the concert bill — Dmitri Shostakovich’s Festive Overture in A Major. What this composition lacked in subtlety, it made up for in pomp and pageantry. It was commissioned in 1954 for the 37th Anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. And Shostakovich came up with such an upbeat melody line that some critics suspected he was secretly gleeful about Stalin’s death the year before.

Whatever secret meanings the overture might hold, the two orchestras performed it with flourish, highlighting by turns its pep and gravitas.

The work was based on Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila — which the audience also got to hear. The Glinka piece was conducted by ESO music director William Eddins — who was on the good-natured receiving end of a few height-related jokes cracked by Lapalme, who lowered the music stand for his colleague.

The strings players got a particular workout during this fast-moving overture, which evoked a steeple-chase right from its furiously paced beginning.

Aleksandr Porfiryevich Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia brought a sharp change of pace. The woodwinds provided a haunting start to this Oriental-flavoured melody written to commemorate Tsar Aleksandr’s Eastern expansion.

Eddins accomplished the near impossible with Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy — he found a way to make it sound fresher than I would have thought possible. The over-the-top romantic theme has been used for every TV commercial, animated show etc. that wants to depict the act of falling in love as something as stupifying as a hammer blow to the head.

But the music sounded somehow less cliched under the guidance of Eddins’ baton. It also helped that audience members also got to appreciate other aspects of the evocative composition, which portray the tumult and tragedy of Shakespeare’s story.

Such emotion, such a gorgeous big sound! The Romeo and Juliet Fantasy scored the first standing ovation of the evening.

And the combined forces of the Red Deer and Edmonton Symphony Orchestras proved, once again, to be the perfect ending for an exciting RDSO season.

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