In pre-concert remarks Sunday night, Jayhun Mollazade, President of the US Azerbaijan Council, said that this week's Mount Vernon Orchestra concert marked the first time that an American orchestra had ever presented the music of two prominent Azerbaijani composers. The orchestra proceeded to play both a concerto for orchestra and a ballet suite rarely heard in this country, and play them with an enthusiasm and sense of excitement that was notable.
The concert was held on Sunday in the Whaley Auditorium at Bishop Ireton High School and it will be repeated next Sunday at West Potomac High. It included performances by recent competition winners Rena Kimura on violin and Jenny Lee on piano playing music by Saint-SaÎns and Sarasate. But it was the music of the two Azerbaijani composers — Kara Karayev and Sultan Hajibeyov — that dominated the event.
Opening the concert was the Concerto for Orchestra by Hajibeyov. Any concerto is supposed to give its featured performer every opportunity to display virtuosic command of music making. With a Concerto for Orchestra it is the entire organization which has such an opportunity. Under the baton of Ulysses S. James, the orchestra took every advantage of that opportunity with exceptional intensity and focus, especially in the violin section headed by concertmaster Irina Garkavi.
Garkavi is credited by James as conceiving the concert in the first place as she was born in Azerbaijan and obviously has a special affection for the music of that country in the Caucasus Mountains bordered by the Caspian Sea, Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Iran. Her colleagues seem to have caught the spirit of enthusiasm, however, and tightly nit ensemble work, full throated explosions and intensity in the softer passages marked the work of all the sections of the orchestra.
BOTH PIECES REQUIRED larger than usual orchestral forces and James was conducting nearly 70 players, the largest group the Mount Vernon Orchestra has had on a stage at least since he became the orchestra's music director in 1987.
Hajibeyov's concerto opens with an explosion of horns followed by a light tripping woodwind theme before striding strings send the piece spinning from section to section. Less than three minutes into the piece all of the sections of the orchestra have had a chance to take a moment in the sonic spotlight.
With a full 20 minutes still to play, the challenge for James was to keep the intensity level high without letting any sense of sameness dull the impact of the piece. Passages which, as written, could let the mind begin to wander a bit were delivered with such concentration that no such letdown could be detected. The finale crashed to a conclusion reminiscent of major film scores of the 1950s by such masters as Korngold or Waxman, but had its own unique flavor routed in the culture from which it comes.
If Hajibeyov's dramatic music can be compared to a film score, then portions of Karayev's melodic and episodic ballet material can best be likened to nearly singable dance segments of big Broadway musicals. Many of his melodies seem to call out for an A-A-B-A lyric such as Wright and Forrest would provide for the most melodic of the major concert music of classical masters.
Karayev's "The Seven Beauties Ballet Suite" features a bright introductory dance, a lovely long-lined adagio and a comic romp before introducing the dream motif and the seven pieces for which it was named. The music paints in the mind's eye the portraits of seven women from seven countries which have enraptured a King. Each has a movement filled with music representing a different realm — India and Byzantium, China and Mahgreb, and so on. Finally the work resolves on a processional that brings to mind the Leningrad symphony of Shostakovich. All in all, it was quite a musical travelogue.
Complimenting these new musical experiences was the opportunity to hear some more familiar refrains as Jenny Lee, 13-year-old winner of the Mount Vernon Orchestra's 2003 Summer Camp concerto competition tackled the first movement of Saint-SaÎns piano concerto number 2 and Rena Kimura, the 18-year-old winner of the 2003 Women's Committee of the Arlington Symphony's similar competition played Pablo de Sarasate's violin extravaganza, the fantasy built on themes from Bizet's Carmen.
Lee's finger work was dexterous and powerful if just a bit mechanical. Oh, what a difference nanoseconds can make in phrasing and she shows promise that should stand her in good stead as she matures. Kimura, all in red as befits a Carmen, proceeded through the demanding compilation of some of the world's most famous melodies with nice long bowing and a satisfyingly swinging syncopation where appropriate.
As an extra surprise, the grandson of Karayev, the composer of The Seven Beauties Ballet Suite, Zulfugar Baghirov took the stage to perform one of his own compositions for clarinet. His "Night Rain" proved to be a jazzy exploration of the extremes that instrument can reach in volume, pitch and duration from rapid tripping motifs to long, lyrical passages.