Return of Volodin a chance to count concert blessings


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One concert — or make that two — etched into my memory forever are a pair of back-to-back shows performed by Russian pianist Alexei Volodin in March 2020.

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One concert — or make that two — etched into my memory forever are a pair of back-to-back shows performed by Russian pianist Alexei Volodin in March 2020.

The internationally acclaimed artist appeared here as part of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s Absolute Classics series, thundering his way through all five Beethoven piano concertos over two evenings led by maestro Daniel Raiskin. Guest artists typically perform one such work on a single program; playing the complete set within a 24-hour span is a Herculean task demanding exquisite artistry, not to mention iron-forged stamina and nerves of steel.

Volodin’s bravura left thousands of us at the Centennial Concert Hall gobsmacked during that weekend, with the two concerts officially kicking off the WSO’s Beethoven 250 celebrations. The classical world had just begun marking the 250th anniversary of the German composer’s birth in 1770, with ambitious series of concerts and programs planned for years. Winnipeggers, too, looked forward to joining the party, eager to lap up such iconic works as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, among others.

Few knew what was coming, despite ominous rumblings that the novel coronavirus had begun spreading around the world.

These felt like our last nights of innocence, including being freely able to attend a show without worrying about masks, safety protocols or acquiring a potentially lethal disease as we inhaled Mozart.

Little did we know that fateful weekend that we were collectively witnessing the end of live concerts as we knew them, including being in the presence of world-class artists such as Volodin, for two inordinately long, difficult, even surreal years, and that our lives on so many different levels would never be quite the same again.

A few days later — March 11 — the World Health Organization formally declared COVID-19 a pandemic and our cherished arts organizations began shuttering their doors, with many at risk of folding entirely. The WSO, Manitoba Opera and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, as well as local theatres and contemporary dance troupes subsequently pivoted hard, shape shifting into digital versions of their former selves. At the same time, they equally proved their mettle as resilient, determined and most of all courageous organizations spearheaded by fearless leaders, and fuelled in turn by intrepid artists.

Now, three years later (and after his February 2022 appearances were cancelled owing to the rise of the Omicron variant), Volodin is coming to town again this weekend to perform two mighty works with the WSO, with the pair of back-to-back concerts once more led by Raiskin. I’m struck by life’s synchronicity as I myself joined Club COVID, thankfully in the proverbial rearview mirror. Nonetheless, despite vaccines and boosters, it packed a punch, and I now have firsthand experience of what hundreds of millions have endured since March 2020.

The first program being offered on Friday, March 17 features the virtuoso performing Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30, long revered — and feared — for its fiendish technical demands.

The following night, Volodin will treat listeners to the same composer’s personal favourite, Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, as the most beloved of his four keyboard concertos including its searing central movement, Adagio sostenuto.

The two different programs will also include Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14, Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C major, a.k.a the “Jupiter,” as well as Ukrainian-Canadian composer Larysa Kuzmenko’s Fantasy on a Theme by Beethoven, inspired by its namesake composer’s first symphony.

As if that weren’t enough, this musical powerhouse next plays a solo recital with the Women’s Musical Club of Winnipeg on Sunday, March 19, 2 p.m. at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Listeners will hear works by Schubert, Beethoven, and Medtner, as well as Mussorgsky’s highly imagistic Pictures at an Exhibition.

Performing one of these concerts, let alone three, recalls the sheer magnitude of Volodin’s prior Beethoven concerts in 2020, that now feels a lifetime ago but still resonate so deeply.

I personally never want to forget the past three years, including the cohorts of masked musicians, stringent physical distancing requirements, bell covers, glass shields, and strategically curated programing with Plans A, B, C and sometimes D able to flex to public health orders changing abruptly.

Albeit a cliché, it is only by remembering the past that we can fully appreciate what we have again in the present as we move toward the future. We can never take for granted being able to go to hallowed concert halls to hear live performances of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Brahms or Rachmaninoff, because for far too long, we couldn’t.

COVID-19 has changed us profoundly in ways I believe will take years, or perhaps even decades to fully understand and process. And when Volodin takes the stage this weekend, nods to the maestro and lifts his hands to render those first few notes, some of us, this writer included, will be cheering just a little bit louder this time.

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