The night got off to a very classical, Viennese start when Vladimir Fedoseyev took the stage of the golden hall on Saturday night at the Musikverein. No stranger to this stage himself (the octogenarian was head conductor of the Symphoniker between 1997 and 2004), Fedosejev led the Symphoniker through a program that opened with Johann Christian Bach’s overture to Lucio Silla and Mahler’s Rückert Lieder. Things got considerably more colorful after the interval, with Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite. His work is based on Bizet’s themes, but innovatively arranged for string orchestra and a colossal percussion ensemble.

Johann Christian Bach, the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach, wrote twelve Italian operas, and musically was very much rooted in the “galant” style, which is reflected clearly in this overture. The opening section, marked Allegro assai, features exposed wind work gracefully placed over string obligato and Lombardian rhythms. The Andante which follows is built around tuneful solo oboe work over pizzicato strings. A lively Presto in 3/8 time closes out the work. The Symphoniker exhibited excellent style throughout, playing clearly and wonderfully piano when required.

Mahler’s Rückert Lieder brought Roman Trekel to the stage to lend his well-focused, rich baritone voice to the five songs. The first, “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” was unfortunately completely out of sync as the orchestra began much too slowly for Trekel and did not respond to his urges to help him through the endless lines. “Liebst du um Schönheit” and “Blicke mir nicht in der Lieder” fared better, but were still not terribly organic. “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”, one of the most sublime pieces in Lieder repertoire, had amazing moments. Trekel’s “Ich bin gestorben dem Welt getümmel… und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebiet” was beautifully delivered, as was the dark, atmospheric “Um Mitternacht” which brought the set to a close. Trekel exhibited excellent diction and was engaging to listen to throughout the set. It seemed however that perhaps there had not been adequate rehearsal time for the orchestra with the soloist which made the entire performance feel regrettably uneasy.

The high point of the evening was contemporary Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin’s 1967 Carmen-Suite based on Bizet’s masterpiece. The suite was originally conceived as a ballet and written for Shchedrin’s wife, Bolshoi ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. It contains thirteen dance numbers and is scored for string orchestra plus a massive percussion ensemble requiring four players. These busy gentlemen play a minimum of eight instruments apiece including marimba, chimes, vibraphone, timpani, tom-toms, clave, hi-hat, and much, much more. It is a percussionist’s fever dream, and colors the entire work, giving well-known melodies a decidedly iconoclastic twist. This resulted in the work originally being banned in Russia by the minister of culture who denounced as being “insulting to Bizet’s masterpiece”. Whether irreverent or not, the piece is loads of fun and incredibly innovative. It should also be required listening for burgeoning percussion students. In the first movement, the “Carmen theme” is introduced by chimes to open the work. The second is a lively dance featuring heavy percussion use, and the fourth, the “Changing of the Guard” utilizes stare work to underline its military bent. “Carmen’s entrance and Habanera” and the following sixth movement (simply called “scene” are highlights with their colorful percussion use. The seventh, an “intermezzo” features the strings with minor touches of marimba and castanets. The ninth movement, “Torero” begins innocently enough, but when the famous refrain should erupt, the entire upper register is cut out while the bass line continues. This happens twice and is an indication of how well known Bizet’s melodies are; were we not so well-acquainted, this joke would miss us completely. The “Finale” features a pastiche of numerous themes, the most memorable performed by a trio of marimbas juxtaposed against sections of fatalistic, low-string chord progressions to underline the tragic ending to the story. The same chime theme which opened the work returned at the end, and with its dying strains both a very enjoyable piece and a very enjoyable concert were brought to a happy close.