The program was not all Russian — it concluded with the Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Opus 98 by Johannes Brahms. But it began with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture and featured the Concerto for Cello No. 1 in E-Flat Major by Dmitri Shostakovich.
Conducted by Nicolai Alexeev, the massive orchestra filled The Granada stage, providing a handsome black-and-white background for American cellist Alisa Weilerstein. She swept onstage in an apple-green gown and gave a spirited reading of the Shostakovich piece.
Poor Shostakovich: He was perpetually embattled with Josef Stalin during the days when Russia was known as the USSR. A short time after Stalin’s death, he created this strikingly modern work, which makes full use of the cello’s thrilling timbre. This was during what became known as The Thaw, after Stalin’s demise, when artistic freedom was permitted to flourish.
Weilerstein is a rising star on the concert tour, having trained at the Cleveland Institute of Music. She is also a graduate of Columbia University in New York, with a major in Russian. Her impassioned playing was well-suited to Shostakovich’s work.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s brilliant Russian Easter Overture, which began proceedings, is filled with color and drama. The composer, who completed it in 1888, used themes from the Russian Orthodox Church in memorializing Russian Easter, a beloved holiday in its home country.
After intermission came the Brahms piece. This is from the composer’s late period, and he did not spare the horses in exploring themes and content. The program notes mentioned that the Fourth was written only three years before the Russian Easter Overture, adding that they “inhabit different worlds.”
As a mature composer, Brahms was thoroughly at ease with various orchestral forms, and did not hesitate to incorporate them in ways that audiences of his time were not used to hearing. Apparently, he was exploring Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata 150 at the time he wrote the final movement of the symphony. He was inspired to incorporate a ground bass in the E minor key, something unexpected in a major orchestral work of 1885.
The concert heard in The Granada was a duplicate of one played last week in Los Angeles, to a rapturous reception at Disney Hall and favorable reviews for the orchestra and for Weilerstein. Once again, our community was included in a major orchestral tour, and a not-quite-full house applauded enthusiastically. It has been rainy, cold and windy in Santa Barbara, providing suitable weather for this Russo-Germanic evening.