Gerhardt's command of the work is total.
Prokofiev's Symphony-Concerto for Cello and Orchestra is one of the last and most problematical of his works. It was a drastic recomposition and expansion of an earlier (and unsuccessful) cello concerto. The result proved to be a sprawling affair, of compelling virtuosic display but of diffuse musical effect. Its first movement strains the idiom of sonata-form, while the enormous central movement is structural chaos. Only the final movement, a sardonically humorous theme-with-variations, has a rational shape. There are recurrent touches of the composer's innate lyricism, and flashes of his recognizable orchestral wit, but the whole, long score is freighted with flamboyant writing for the solo instrument -- much of which may be attributed to Mstislav Rostropovich, who was not only its dedicatee but also a virtual co-composer.
For all its drawbacks, it is a work that still deserves hearing, especially when its champion is guest soloist Alban Gerhardt, who is emerging as one of today's leading cello virtuosos. His command of the work is total, his playing assured and assertive, rich in coloristic range, and mercifully non-flamboyant. It is an experience just to hear him tackle such a challenging work, and he and conductor John DeMain are to be commended for bravery in bringing it to us. The orchestra also can be commended for expert handling of its role.
For an encore on Friday evening, "since the concerto is so short", Gerhardt said, he delivered a movement from one of Bach's Cello Sonatas.
To open the program, DeMain again shows enterprise in avoiding the usual overture literature and venturing an important French orchestral work of intermediate scale: Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole. This tight four-movement score calls for orchestral wizardry of the highest order. The conductor and his players have clearly worked hard to command the notes, and the piece comes off as a colorful display. Still, I could not help missing some truly Gallic qualities of elastic phrasing and nuanced blending of specially shaded instrumental combinations. In short, the performance does not really sound French. But then, it takes long experience of players to master such subtleties in this literature, and it would not be fair to discredit what the MSO can already do with this music not readily heard live.
The final part of the concert is devoted to Beethoven's Fourth Symphony. It's an odd work, in many ways -- a kind of Haydnesque throwback against the revolutionary Third and the roof-raising Fifth. One commentator called it "a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants." But then, Beethoven seems to have developed a habit, perhaps unconscious, of reserving his bold statements for his odd-numbered symphonies and relaxing in the even-numbered ones.
In a way, the very lightness of this score does not promise well for the modern "big orchestra," with its disproportionately large string body. But DeMain keeps his string players both disciplined and in proper perspective. Above all, he brings a sprightly spirit and energy to his interpretation that gives the score genuine lift.
This program will be heard again on Saturday evening at 8 p.m. and at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.