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  january 29
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Back in Black: Denver Band Black Black Ocean Rocks Again
RED Reviews

Man Destroyed by This Issue of RED

Too Many Empty Seats at the Virtuoso’s Best Concert:
Christopher O’Riley and Carter Brey
by Christian Gentry

had a whole row to myself, which, in theory, can be nice—there would be no one trying to steal my armrest or my foot space. And I could get away with more whispering than usual. Yet every time there is such a poor showing to classical music events, my disappointment far outweighs the elation of having so much libertine space. Nevertheless, the Virtuoso Series concert at Libby Gardner Hall on Jan. 23 proved to be the best of its season thus far. Sparse attendance or not, pianist Christopher O’Riley and the New York Philharmonic’s principal cellist, Carter Brey, rendered a stunning program of Russian music.

Why are so many classical music events attended so poorly? Is it the inversion? Maybe it has to do with the economy and people can’t afford tickets? That can’t be true. People are willing to pay the price for music and entertainment they love. Maybe there is just too much classical music and people have a hard time deciding which concert to attend? Probably not. Along the expansive Wasatch Front, there is only one radio station dedicated to classical music programming (thanks for screwing us over, KUER). It is a difficult task to really come to grips with why there is a general disinterest in classical music. And I can’t spend the time trying to sort through all the means that have led to this general antipathy toward this dying genre.

The composers of Russia didn’t really come into their own until the late 19th century. The stronghold of German and French romanticism pervaded all of Europe. Even Tchaikovsky, who is one of the most revered of Russian romantics, used German Romantic literature to create the Nutcracker. But it was during the 20th century when the Russians really rose to power in the creation and performance of classical art music.

With the breakdown of the empire and a new hope for economic and political freedom provided by the Bolsheviks, Russian composers had a new vibrant voice that was all their own. Of course, this hope turned into the despair of communism. Alongside this history of collapsed monarchies and rebellious tyrants is a music that emotes the human condition in such turbulent times.

Igor Stravinsky became an expatriate of his Russian homeland to seek better pastures in the artistic world, namely Paris and the United States. A mystifying and most influential character, Stravinsky journeyed through all of music history to extrapolate forms, harmonies and structures as bases for his compositional endeavors.

Among his voluminous body of work is his Suite Italienne. This six-movement piece uses baroque dance forms such as the gavotte, minuet and tarantella to lie out a uniquely crafted work that pays homage to the composers of yester-century. Brey and O’Riley rendered an exciting balance between foreground and background throughout this Neo-Baroque work.

In the serenata movement, Brey exuded great confidence without sacrificing the delicate beauty of the melody. Just when the piece seemed to be a simple statement of an archaic sound, Brey and O’Riley busted into the tour de force Scherzino movement. Brey and O’Riley played through this tornado of technique as if commanding Stravinsky himself to make it more difficult.

The last movement, Menuetto e finale, which exists in Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, contained more complex harmonies that are more associative with Stravinsky’s works in general. Brey displayed his dexterity by switching between edgy pizzicatos and long, melodious bow strokes. This move further emphasized the bipolar nature of this piece and the work in general. Bipolar, that is, in the sense that the piece sounds strangely Baroque and then unusually modern.

Unlike Stravinsky, Dmitri Shostakovich never left Russia. Yet the auspices of Russian tyranny never thwarted the creative output of this composer. Yes, he feared for his life and the reaction to his cynical and sarcastic music, but he remained true to his craft. One of the most played recital pieces is his Sonata in D minor, Op. 40, for piano and cello. This piece allowed the musicality of the Brey-O’Riley duo to shine through. Throughout this work, one could get a sense of the cohesive nature of the performers’ goals, which is a difficult task, considering the fact that both are in-demand soloists. The languidness, sarcasm and beauty of this work came about through a group effort. Brey would come in the foreground when necessary, likewise with O’Riley. At times, the dynamics and articulations were so in sync that it seemed as if only one instrument were playing.

The concert was brought to an end by the performance of the most popular Russian of them all: Serge Rachmaninoff. Despite the dramatic shifts in musical composition in the 20th century, Rachmaninoff remained a man misplaced—a Romantic composer and piano virtuoso. His technical capability was a ubiquitous presence in his Sonata in G minor, Op. 19. Brey and O’Riley finally had the opportunity to show the audience that they possessed the palpable and technical capacity to play difficult music. On stage at that moment, I saw two virtuosos fighting for power.

This battle to be the more skilled and dominant performer wasn’t necessarily due to the performance, but the music itself. So if Rachmaninoff wanted to illustrate the battle within oneself, it was definitely shown by Brey and O’Riley—so much, in fact, that if felt like they were striving too hard to make the music dramatic.

The Andante, for example, is a section where the cello and the piano are playing a loud, low note together that builds more tension to lead to the restatement of the melody. The energy and effort used to create this drama came off as melodramatic and contradicted the beauty that could have transpired. But Rachmaninoff often wrote in such over-the-top fashion and the performers were probably just trying to stay true to this tradition.

This concert provided a unique perspective on a genre that has influenced so many present and past composers. It also showed the devotion and respect that professional performers have for an often-overlooked genre within classical music: Russian music. In spite of the small audience, Brey and O’Riley played as if the whole concert hall was full of enthusiastic music lovers. Their passion and enthusiasm for their craft was an inspiration and made me forget, albeit briefly, about my disgruntled attitude surrounding the public’s general antipathy toward classical music.

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