Zoraqi, Tili, Zadeja, Laro, Kurti, Jakova, Gaci, Ibrahimi, Gaqi, LeGrand, Kushta, Deda

Tonight was an altogether different sort of celebration, as the Albanian Radio-Television Orchestra turned 50 (shortly before the modern Albanian state turns 100 next month) with a gala concert at the University of the Arts.  This is an altogether less dreary concert hall than the opera house where I have heard them perform before.

The program contained almost exclusively Albanian music by composers I have mostly never heard before and may never hear again.  But I remain open for new music, so enjoyed the experience.  I assume the selections were Albanian warhorses from the years of isolation, although I really know nothing about them.  The orchestra seemingly picked them in order to sound at its best.  Solo lines did not shine, but ensemble playing filled the room adequately.  Chief conductor Jetmir Barballushi opened and closed the concert, with a train of others taking the stage for a piece or two in between (and a young one popping up for the encore).

No programs were available (although I saw that a handful of people had clearly received them in advance and brought programs with them.  I’ve yet to find a website for this orchestra (nor any link even from the Albanian Radio-Television site).  So I tried to figure out the program as best I could from the announcer who came on stage every time they substituted conductors.

Most of the pieces sounded out of the romantic or post-romantic tradition.  At the end of the concert, they showed a film about the orchestra with interviews, and certainly it became clear that after the Second World War, until Albania broke with the Soviet Union, there was indeed a Russian influence in Albanian classical music.  This could as well be discerned from tonight’s selection, but so could a central European trend that had existed earlier and then again subsequent to the fall of Communism.

The concert opened with a rousing Festive Overture by Nikolla \Zoraqi.  Two Sketches for flute and orchestra by Spartak Tili followed, showing a somewhat eastern influence (the composer stood up and took a bow).  The suite from Çesk Zadeja’s ballet Deline added syncope to the mix.  The music returned to the normal with the overture to the film music from Liberty or Death by Kujtim Laro, a rather dramatic tone poem that worked even independently of a film.

Of course, nothing was truly independent of a film, because on the screen behind the orchestra, they kept playing the same 20-second clip over and over and over and over the whole concert, which mixed the RTSh logo with brief scenes from classic Albanian television films.  I have now seen Skanderbeg charge off on his horse against the Turks in the 15th century, and Ismail Qemali raise Skanderbeg’s banner as the flag of independent Albania in 1912 repeatedly to exasperation.

The conductor of Palokë Kurti’s fantasy “Unification of Albania” introduced the composer as a great patriot for Albanian independence who died in 1920.  For someone trying to create a hymn for his new country, he did not seem to include any recognizably Albanian style.  Indeed, the piece could have been written by Verdi, scored for marching band.

An aria from Prenk Jakova’s opera Skanderbeg followed, sung inexpertly by a woman whose name I did not catch.  I had enjoyed this opera complete in June.

The following pieces all seemed derivative of something.  Pjetër Gaci’s violin concerto started off like a lesser version of Bruch’s and moved into territory of Schostakowitsch and Dvorak.  Feim Ibrahimi’s suite from the ballet Gjergj Elez Alia began like Stravinsky morphing into Tshaikowsky before turning into a strange blend of Prokofiev and Paliashvili.  Thoma Gaqi’s Symphonic Dance #2 sounded like it took a theme from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and ran it through Ravel’s Bolero, with the result being not as original as the former but far more exciting than the latter.

One non-Albanian piece graced the program: a somewhat dull work by Michael LeGrand, whom I have also never heard of, but appears to have been a foreign film composer.  This was a piece for cello and orchestra apparently taken from a film called Papa Can You Hear Me? of which I know nothing.  I have no idea why this piece made it into the program, except maybe to showcase the solo cellist, who was not bad but who could have selected an Albanian work to perform instead.

The finale was the symphonic poem Let’s Go by Shpëtim Kushta, which brought things back to where they should be.  An encore, written by the orchestra’s longtime conductor Ferdinand Deda, would have been anti-climactic, except that it made a good segue into the film on the history of the orchestra.

In the film, the orchestra’s current general manager stated in an interview that the purpose of a house radio-television orchestra is to educate the general public.  The orchestra accomplished that goal tonight.

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