BRATTLEBORO—A Russian invasion is coming to Southern Vermont this weekend.
On Friday, June 8, at Landmark College in Putney, and Sunday, June 10, at the Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro, the Windham Orchestra, under the direction of Hugh Keelan, will present “Russian Festival.”
Three Russian composers and a young artist provide the inspiration for Russian Festival. The spirited program includes Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D and the Firebird Suite, Tchaikovsky’s Overture-Fantasy Romeo and Juliet, and Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila overture.
Keelan said two elements make this concert special: highlighting Russian music from the 19th and early 20th century, and the presence of Matthew Woodard, a 17-year-old violinist from South Hadley, Mass.
“He is an extraordinary talent who will be our violin soloist in the Stravinsky concerto,” Keelan said. Woodard also will be guest conducting in the Glinka overture.
Keelan chose a concert of Russian music not only because the orchestra has done very little of this repertoire in the past but, perhaps more importantly, it is the kind of music that can make his players look great.
“It is an ambitious program,” he says, “but it is manageable by these players. It is the kind of music in which our ensemble can shine and, what is equally important, be able to demonstrate to themselves that they have the ability to shine.”
For musicians, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, Keelan said.
“Although there are taxing moments here and there for individual players, these works are all about the glory of the ensemble.”
Keelan said he finds Russian music especially rich for his orchestra.
“Russian music is glossy, glowing, and rapid,” he said.
“On one side it has the introspective, depressed aspect of Russian national culture, and on the other, it is festive and colorful. There is a bigness and wonderful contrast in 19th and early 20th century Russian music.”
While the orchestra was rehearsing Stravinsky’s “Firebird” in the River Garden in downtown Brattleboro, other musicians who were not performing the piece stopped by.
“They were overwhelmed by what they heard,” said Keelan. “And when we then began rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, a piece of music that is quite recognizable, people off Main Street began gathering back and front to see what was going on. The music certainly made them prick up their ears.”
Accomplished at 17
The concert is also an opportunity to present Woodward’s talent. For an artist so young, the South Hadley musician has had an impressive musical background.
Woodard began his violin studies at the age of four under Amanda Provost. For a time, he studied with Acadian fiddler Donna Hébert, who taught him both standard classical repertoire and French-Canadian fiddle tunes. He next studied under Linda Laderach, chair of the music department at Mount Holyoke College, who advised him to attend the New England Conservatory’s Preparatory Program. There, he studied for two years with Marylou Speaker Churchill, before her untimely death in 2009.
He currently studies with James Buswell at the New England Conservatory.
Between the ages of 8 and 12, Woodard performed in both the Mount Holyoke College Orchestra and Springfield Symphony Youth Orchestra (SYO), serving periodically as concertmaster of SYO. At the New England Conservatory’s Preparatory Program, he is the principal violist of the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra. An avid chamber musician, Woodard has attended numerous summer chamber music festivals, including Point Counterpoint, Greenwood Music Camp, and Yellow Barn Young Artists’ Program.
Keelan asked Woodard what he would like to play in the upcoming concert. “Of course, he could do any of the great violin concertos, by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky,” Keenlan explained.
Most composers only produce one violin concerto. Keelin suggested Woodard play something outside the “grand war horses” that other performances might not offer him.
To Keelan’s delight, Woodard suggested they play Stravinsky’s violin concerto. The piece belongs to Stravinsky’s neoclassical period, and is one of Keelan’s favorite works, which he calls “a touching and invigorating masterpiece with crisp, frolicking rhythms, and glowing melody, and extravagant ornamentation.”
“We are also doing Stravinsky’s Firebird in this concert, with its aching, magical tenderness, infernal dances, and breathtaking climaxes,” says Keelan.
That piece belongs to Stravinsky’s earlier period, when he was writing ballets for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, including The Rite of Spring.
“Those works are glossy and glowing in their bigness. The later violin concerto, on the other hand, is more contained,” Keelan said.
He described two amusing references: The first is to the circus and the music of circuses. The concerto begins on that note. Later, in the section “aria #2,” the tone changes. This part alludes to the Bach of the cantatas and oratorios as well as the sublime Air on a G string.
“It is a moving section which provides the emotional core of the piece. Then in the finale, Stravinsky returns back to the circus, with the music here chirpy and humorous,” Keelan said.
Brattleboro violinmaker and Windham Orchestra member Douglas Cox created the instrument Woodard will play for this performance.
Woodard will also conduct the lively overture to Glinka’s opera Ruslan and Lyudmila.
Keelan said that “little sense of the opera’s dark arts or skullduggery is present in the overture, which lures us in with its bright youthful vigor and innocently romantic second theme.”