On the unseasonably warm evening of Saturday, December 2, I went to Music Hall to spend an evening with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. The weather is not particularly relevant, just fortunate. On the bill were three pieces of music: “Funeral Song” by Igor Stravinsky, Concerto in A-flat Major for Trumpet and Orchestra by Alexander Arutunian, and the showpiece of the night, “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky. Leading the orchestra was guest conductor Andrey Boreyko, a Russian native with a passion for lesser-known works of music.
“Funeral Song” was written as a tribute to Stravinsky’s teacher in 1908, and as far as tributes go, it’s pretty epic. It begins with a haunting growl and builds its principal melody line before launching into an explosive journey of dynamics and tempo. Boreyko drew the emotion out of the piece, bringing each section to life through every twist and turn.
After the conclusion of “Funeral Song,” the orchestra rearranged, and a blonde woman in a flowing gown and bare feet came onto center stage. Soloist Tine Thing Helseth carried her trumpet and a mute, which she sat on the floor in front of her and casually repositioned with one bare foot. As the piece began, we realized we were in for something special. The energy with which Helseth plays the trumpet is captivating. Boreyko led the orchestra through its supportive role with matching energy, and the whole thing was just very fun.
The rest of the audience seemed to agree. Applause after the piece lasted long enough for Helseth to return to the stage three times, positioning herself center stage the last time to wait for the applause to die down. When it did, she surprised us with an announcement, sans microphone, that she would play an original piece of her own for us. The orchestra watched from behind her as she played a lovely piece, one that was probably 2-3 minutes in length, bowed, and exited the stage to more applause.
The main event of the evening was the performance of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” For the unfamiliar, it’s a suite of ten pieces that is approximately 35 minutes in length. It was originally written for the piano, but Maurice Ravel arranged it for orchestra in 1922, introducing a much larger scale of instrumentation, notably highlighting the trumpet and piccolo, bringing to it a dynamic and lush sense of animation.
An aside: good friends of mine know that I have a fascination with Ravel, and that, after a few drinks, I’ve been known to sing Bolero at pretty high volume. It’s notable that Bolero has no lyrics.
The word that kept popping up in my mind during this piece was “enjoyable.” What a delight! The orchestra performed wonderfully, and Boreyko was a pure joy to watch. You can tell that he’s more than someone who merely directs an orchestra—he’s a storyteller, and he’s there to lead these talented musicians through a story together. It was a privilege to experience.
It was a night full of observable skill, a melding of passionate music and musicians. The combination of selected works was a smart one that was punctuated by Boreyko’s dynamic style.
Hilly Kenkel is a former vocal performance major and lifelong lover of music, political science nerd, podcast junkie, and Cincinnatian. She goes through sporadic periods of obsessive sourdough baking, weight lifting, distance running, and gardening. As a rule, she only names her pets after musicians, and she is hopelessly devoted to her cat, Bessie Smith