Columbus Symphony Orchestra Returns to In-Person Russian Winter Festival

The Columbus Symphony’s two-part Russian Winter Festival will feature American-Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3.

Jack Long
Columbus Monthly
Columbus Symphony

One of the wonders of good music programing is its knack for revisiting popular pieces while introducing an audience to new or nearly forgotten works. Another is its ability to showcase the unique skills and talents of a renowned soloist. The Columbus Symphony Orchestra’s Russian Winter Festival does both.

Between Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (featuring American-Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan), Tchaikovsky’s tragically underperformed Orchestral Suite No. 3 is tucked away in this season of the festival.

This isn’t abnormal for this musical tradition, which is now going into its seventh year. Previous performances included Tchaikovsky’s “Manfred” Symphony in B Minor (the composer’s only programmatic work with more than one movement and rarely performed) and an arrangement of the composer’s (very famous) “1812 Overture” with the (not so famous) addition of a chorus.

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The Russian Winter Festival started in 2015 when Rossen Milanov became the music director and conductor of the orchestra as a way “to connect to one of the richest sources of repertoire and some of the most original ways of writing music that emerged at the end of the 19th-century,” Milanov says.

Since then, the festival has been one of the defining events for the orchestra, he says.

Russian Winter Festival I: Stravinsky & Mussorgsky (Jan. 7-8 at 7:30 p.m.)

The first part of the festival, which begins this Friday, showcases the Columbus Symphony’s abilities to perform two of the most complex and well-known pieces in the Russian repertoire: Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” (performed without choreography). Milanov says the challenging works require both team participation and important solos from principal players.

“Pictures at an Exhibition” was inspired by 10 artworks completed by Mussorgsky’s friend, the painter Victor Hartmann, who died in the summer of 1873. Variations on the opening promenade are repeated throughout the piece, depicting the composer’s movement through the exhibition.

The reputation of “The Rite of Spring” usually precedes it. Most have heard the story that riots broke out at its Paris premiere, though the reason for the uproar hasn’t been locked down. Were anti-Russian sentiments to blame? Or was the audience in shock from the sharp rhythms, dissonance, choreography and theatrical sacrifice of a young maiden? What “The Rite of Spring” does depict isn’t so much a ballet with a clear plot but rather a feeling: the awakening and power of spring.

Russian Winter Festival II: Tchaikovsky & Rachmaninoff, (Jan. 21-23 at 7:30 p.m.)

The rarely performed Orchestral Suite No. 3 by Tchaikovsky will finally get its due in Columbus; in the Columbus Symphony’s 70-year history, the ensemble has never played the piece before.

“I was very surprised that such a major piece by a really popular composer had not been heard in Columbus,” Milanov says. “So, I decided to bring it as one of the alt-Russian works that we always introduce during the Russian Winter Festival. This is sort of part of the tradition that we have been doing for the past six years.”

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 will follow the Tchaikovsky and is in the good hands of Barnatan. It’s one of the most challenging concertos in the classical piano repertoire. “For many professional pianists, it really is the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest,” Milanov says.

Inon Barnatan

Barnatan and Milanov first played together when Milanov was working at the Philadelphia Orchestra and have toured around the world with each other, most recently in Japan.

The last time Barnatan performed with the Columbus Symphony was in 2018 when he played all five of Beethoven piano concertos in two consecutive nights.

“[He’s] a musician that I think our Columbus audience will very much respect and admire,” Milanov says. “And a person I’m sure they’ll welcome in January for that spectacular climb of Mount Everest.”