Music review: SLO Symphony’s Russian revelation

On Saturday, when the San Luis Obispo Symphony gave its opening night concert at the Performing Arts Center at Cal Poly, the audience rose twice to its feet.

Once was for the virtuosity of guest pianist Robert Edward Theis, and the other for the orchestra’s performance under Michael Nowak.

The program, an evening of all 20th century Russian music, offered the orchestra great opportunities to show off its color range.

I saw new faces in the string section and heard new energy in the brass.

I think the standing ovations may have had a lot to do with how consistently focused the orchestra sounded.

The expressive range of the music varied from comic pratfalls to sublimely complex introspection. Nowak piloted confidently through every kind of water.

The evening started playfully with the “Russian Sailors’ Dance” by Reinhold Gliere, a percussive showpiece which starts slowly but builds into a romp.

Things got serious when Theis, a longtime San Luis audience favorite, took over the Steinway for the Rachmaninoff “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.”

The theme is the five-note Caprice in A minor you already know. Liszt and Brahms wrote famous variations on it during the Romantic period, but Rachmaninoff’s melodic modernism brought up new harmonies and introduced radical mood-swings.

In my imagination, Theis’ playing suggested a modernist painter remembering a romantic landscape — a Keats autumn scene, painted by Picasso.

Theis is a high-level virtuoso who carried the music with great style.

He crept up on loud passages with drama, and articulated more delicate, French-sounding moments flawlessly.

The orchestra never overpowered the soloist, and fit neatly into each new mood.

I was most excited to hear the evening’s main offering, the Shostakovich Fifth, Op. 47, from 1937.

Most listeners know how this great modernist, frightened by a philistine editorial in Pravda, wrote this deliberately conservative symphony to save his reputation and his life.

The music that unfolded Saturday night did not sound like an act of back-pedaling. Nowak was sensitive to the icy scene-setting in the first movement, and kept momentum going.

The last two movements continue to amaze. The slow Largo offers moods of loneliness, dread and yearning. It is scored without brass.

Was that Shostakovich’s comment on what the Soviet state was doing to its citizens?

The string section trembled and the woodwinds whispered. Nowak used sweeping dance gestures I had never seen in his conducting before tonight.

Then tom-toms open the last movement with the brutality of a Moscow winter. How much irony did Shostakovich pack into this supposedly optimistic finale?

The vigorous opening is steely with power, but the middle dips into a hushed amble suggesting the anxious loops of minimalism.

By the time the movement rushes toward its bang-up ending, with chimes and drums and a Mahler-sounding tune, one must wonder what — or who — is being banged up.

The concert was sponsored by Beverly and Jim Smith. Next month’s concert features a rare California appearance by cellist Lynn Harrell and will almost certainly sell out, so act fast.