By Channing Gray
Special to The Providence Journal
PROVIDENCE — Bramwell Tovey, the Rhode Island Philharmonic’s new conductor, had to skip Saturday night’s concert at Veterans Memorial Auditorium to undergo cancer treatment. But the orchestra ended up getting the next best thing: Tania Miller, a young Canadian conductor whose recent visits here have proved her to be an exciting musician and a perfect fit for the Philharmonic.
Her take on Shostakovich’s brooding Tenth Symphony, which closed out an evening of lesser-known selections, never failed to keep the big picture in view. The loneliness, the darkness of the vast opening movement, and the searing portrait of Soviet strongman Josef Stalin in the second were an emotional tsunami.
Shostakovich, who faced constant Soviet censorship, had not written a symphony since the end of World War II. But in 1953, just months after the death of Stalin, he sat down to pen the Tenth.
Miller, who stepped in for Tovey on two weeks’ notice, seemed so petite on the podium, but she took hold of the epic score and led the audience on a journey they won’t soon forget.
But the breaking news of the night was the appearance of pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, an audience favorite at the Newport Music Festival years ago. She brought with her Tchaikovsky’s rambling, episodic Second Piano Concerto, which I’ve never heard live.
Tchaikovsky actually wrote three piano concertos, but the last two have been overshadowed by the popular, and overplayed, B-Flat Minor.
There were some tender moments in the lyrical middle movement, where McDermott teamed up with concertmaster Charles Dimmick, and she brought more than a bit of glitter to the concluding section.
But try as they might, McDermott and Miller just couldn’t pull the opening movement together. It’s music in fits and starts, where every few pages the orchestra would stop and McDermott would plow through unimpressive solos cobbled together from scales and a few alternating chords.
Not inventive, imaginative music, in other words. And McDermott was unable to do much to change that with what amounted to a dutiful interpretation.
As for the obligatory encore, she tore into the Prelude from Bach’s Second English Suite, sounding quite frantic at first, but eventually relaxing and making the intricate music sing.
Miller opened the evening with another unfamiliar offering, the African American composer William Grant Still’s “In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy.” The score, chosen as a Veterans Day tribute, is laced with harmonies that sound like spirituals and made a nice change of pace from tired Italian opera overtures.