Philharmonic rocks Carnegie Music Hall

It’s one thing to read that Carnegie Mellon’s School of Music is one of the top undergraduate music programs in the country; it’s another to hear the product of student work come to life on stage. On Wednesday, the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic graced Carnegie Music Hall with impressive performances across the board. Beginning with a roaring Ruslan and Ludmila, moving into a showcase of solo talent, and concluding with the epic Shostakovich 5, the orchestra rose to the challenge of a broad and well-rehearsed program.

The orchestra launched the evening with a breakneck rendition of Mikhail Glinka’s notoriously fast Ruslan and Ludmila Overture. Conductor Andrés Cárdenes took a very laid-back style in leading the orchestra in this first piece. After his first cue, he leaned back, conducting with nothing but an occasional bob of the head or twitch of the fingers. Surprisingly, the orchestra maintained a reasonable tempo on its own, staying a unified body and resisting the ever-present temptation to speed up to the point of total cacophony.

The phrasing was cloudy at moments, but overall sharp and unified, and the cellos were simply beautiful when they took the limelight with their sweeping melody, wringing every ounce of tenderness from each bar without slowing the tempo. The Glinka proved an excellent choice for an opener: It infused the performance with energy right from the start and elicited cheers from the audience.

The evening also showcased Carnegie Mellon’s solo talent: After the Glinka, the musicians rearranged their seats to make room for Krzysztof Rucinski, a master’s student in violin performance and the highlight of the second part of the program. He chose to play Karol Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 1 — a piece written in 1916 and often considered one of the first modern violin concertos, for immediately obvious reasons: The piece is beautiful but atonal, departing from traditional compositions of the form.

At first appearance, Rucinski did not have a particularly emotive or even charismatic stage presence. Many concert soloists naturally try to charm their audience or make a show of chemistry with the conductor. Rucinski crossed the stage wearing all black, only modestly acknowledging the applause that greeted him. All that changed, however, when the music started. When Rucinski lowered his violin during the extended breaks between passages, he lifted his head up as if in wonder, eyes shining — as if he were drinking in the music for the first time. At times, he closed his eyes, as if shutting off his vision would enhance his hearing that much more.

Rucinski’s playing itself was flawed at points, but overall it was exquisite. His eerie, beautiful first notes were made tender and haunting by a fluid, effortlessly quavering vibrato. Rucinski sometimes lacked the volume for his sound to rise over the clamoring orchestra, but his playing was no less forceful for it; during grittier passages, Rucinski seemed to rage at the music, digging recklessly into the strings — and snapping a few bow hairs in the process.

After a long intermission, the full orchestra took the stage again for Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. While not technically difficult, the symphony is one of the composer’s better-known works, and an ambitious choice given its historical context. Symphony No. 5 was Shostakovich’s response to criticism and intimidation by Stalin himself and his associates in 1930s Russia. While overtly patriotic — the piece gained wide acclaim from Stalinist authorities upon its premiere — it is now generally understood that Symphony No. 5 was Shostakovich’s subtly seditious effort to make realist commentary on the suffering of the Russian people while appeasing Stalin’s regime and avoiding arrest himself. It is a depiction of forced celebration: the appearance of patriotism, with a strong undertone of turmoil and suffering tainting the happy picture.

From Wednesday’s performance, it was clear that the orchestra did not take this challenge lightly: The musicians gave the piece the gravity and attention it deserves. Clocking in at roughly 45 minutes, the symphony isn’t a short one — but the musicians maintained energy and a high quality of performance throughout. The well-rehearsed moments in the performance were apparent in the clear, unified phrasing and well-coordinated, broad range of dynamics. The performance held a wide range of moments, from fragile, creepily soft spider-web passages to roaring crescendos that tumbled into furious musical chaos. At times, the piece reached very brief but deafening peaks of volume, characterized by a fierce rumbling of the timpani.

Cárdenes, too, was especially animated throughout the Shostakovich in contrast to his approach to the Glinka. It seemed he had been saving his energy all night for that last 45 minutes. During particularly energetic passages, he shook his fist at the orchestra, as if threatening them with violence if they didn’t play loud enough.

The piece concluded with a racing fourth movement, which mellowed into a full, round sound that carried the triumphant — or despairing — last minutes of the symphony into a grand swell of an ending. Immediately after the musicians lowered their instruments, the audience leapt into a full standing ovation.