Music News & Reviews

Russian classics take the stage in Sacramento Philharmonic doubleheader

Pianist Andrew von Oeyen Pianist
Pianist Andrew von Oeyen Pianist Marco Borggreve

A thundering herd of classic Russian warhorses is galloping into the Community Center Theater for the Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera’s January doubleheader. On consecutive Saturdays, the music organization will present famous, crowd-pleasing compositions familiar to veteran concertgoers.

The first troika, on Saturday, includes Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances,” and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Maestro Case Scaglione will conduct with Andrew von Oeyen as piano soloist in the Tchaikovsky.

The Jan. 27 troika comprises Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla, Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Maestra Mei-Ann Chen will conduct returning piano soloist von Oeyen in the Rachmaninoff.

The compositions on the Philharmonic’s programs pervade our culture more than people might realize. Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” was animated in Disney’s Fantasia (1940) and his “Pictures at an Exhibition” was featured in the soundtrack of The Big Lebowski (1998). The theme from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was appropriated for both “Tonight We Love” (Bobby Worth) and “Alone at Last” (Jackie Wilson). While Glinka’s opera Ruslan and Ludmilla is never performed in North America, its boisterous overture has become a staple of the orchestral repertoire—as well as the theme music for Allison Janney’s sitcom, “Mom.”

As for Rachmaninoff, he has a staggering list of 186 soundtrack credits at movie database IMDb. The public appears to agree with Marilyn Monroe as she swoons in the fantasy sequence from “The Seven Year Itch”: “Rachmaninoff! It’s not fair!”

Pianist von Oeyen is enjoying a career that has garnered him rave reviews, bookings all over the world, and a recording contract with Warner Classics. The Chicago Tribune reacted to one of his performances by declaring, “Von Oeyen leaves you convinced that he can do absolutely anything he likes with a keyboard.”

Von Oeyen is eager to address questions about the two classic compositions he is performing in his Sacramento debut. “People often ask me how I approach very famous works in the repertoire with a freshness of vision,” says von Oeyen. “The two concertos I will be playing with the Sacramento Philharmonic—among the most popular in all the repertoire—are perfect examples of this ‘warhorse’ dilemma.”

One reason might be the artist’s relative youth; a performer in his 30s sees things differently from those who have reached their 70s. But von Oeyen offers a more direct argument. “I think the real reason lies in the content of the works themselves: They are true masterpieces, from every point of view, and, as such, offer varying and satisfying rewards every time you take them on—especially if you are an artist whose playing is constantly evolving.”

The enduring classics offer depths to which the dedicated performer can return time and again, discovering the new in the old. “It’s quite difficult for pieces to get stale when they sound different every time you touch them. Then, of course, there are the factors of playing on different pianos with different orchestras, which add important layers of newness each time. Honestly, it still blows my mind how Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff came up with so many gorgeous melodies, one after the next, and then were able to tie them all together without any section of either piece ever sounding academic.”

The first bars of the Tchaikovsky are among the most famous opening chords of all time, but the concerto offers so much more. Von Oeyen notes, “Even if you are slightly less enchanted by the opening crashing chords of the Tchaikovsky than you were when you first heard the piece, how can you not be moved by the beautifully vulnerable and longing flute solo in the second movement?”

Rachmaninoff is the only composer featured on the Philharmonic’s January performances to have lived into the 20th century, remaining resolutely dedicated to the Romantic tradition. His colossal third piano concerto offers such enormous challenges that its dedicatee, Josef Hofmann, never ventured to perform it. Von Oeyen singles out “the magical E-flat major section in the middle section of the third movement” for special appreciation as an example of Rachmaninoff’s creative genius.

He is delighted with the two compositions he is performing for capital concert-goers: “Both pieces are just overflowing with inspiration.” The warhorses are coming to town and von Oeyen is ready for them.

As noted in the January/February 2018 issue of American Record Guide, “People do not like the warhorses merely because they are familiar; but they are familiar because people like them, and people like them because they are beautiful.”

Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera Russian Festival

When: 8 p.m. Saturday and 8 p.m. Jan. 27

Where: Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento

Tickets: $18-50,