By Lawrence Budmen

The combination of Russian melancholy, richly textured melodies and colorful orchestral flourishes that comprise the heartbeat of the music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) has long provided vivid opportunities to display the power of the modern virtuoso orchestra. Russian ensembles, in particular, bring a unique insight and sense of artistic heritage to these staples of the symphonic repertoire. While the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (which recently gave a stellar concert in Miami under Yuri Temirkanov), the Russian National Orchestra, and St. Petersburg's Kirov Orchestra form the top tier of Russian symphony orchestras, the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra is not far behind. This impressive ensemble reveled in Tchaikovsky's music at its welcome return to South Florida on January 10 at the Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami Beach - a presentation of the Concert Association of Florida. 

The Moscow Philharmonic plays with a sonorous, distinctively Russian sound. The rich, warmly beautiful string tone, plangent winds, blazing brass, and incisive percussion can produce a mighty, dynamic ensemble sound; yet every strand of the orchestral texture has great clarity and transparency. The musicians in this ensemble were born to play Tchaikovsky! Just as the aesthetic of Mozart's operas informs every instrumental work he penned so the ballet music of Tchaikovsky forms the artistic core of his essays in other musical genres. (Many of Tchaikovsky's operas are really ballets with vocal writing. "Eugene Onegin" and "Pique Dame" - "The Queen of Spades" - have been turned into successful ballets.) The Moscow ensemble's Music Director Yuri Simonov brings deep artistic roots to Tchaikovsky's balletic scores. A veteran opera and ballet conductor, Simonov was Music Director of Moscow's famed Bolshoi Theater for sixteen years - the youngest maestro ever to hold that august post. 

Simonov's operatic experience makes him the perfect concerto accompanist-collaborator. The ability to make an orchestra breathe and phrase with a soloist is an art in itself. Simonov is the master of this musical tightrope, which requires both strong leadership and communicative support. (At one time it was expected that conductors would acquire these skills in the opera house before taking on broader symphonic repertoire. Today - with less conductors receiving this indispensable training - the rapport between soloists and conductors has become a sometime thing.) Simonov provided an astutely gauged, musically vibrant orchestral backdrop for the evening's soloist Cho-Liang Lin. Lin has been an aristocrat of the violin for more than two decades. His subtle, delicately nuanced performance of Tchaikovsky's "Violin Concerto in D Major," Opus 35 was sheer musical joy! At its heart was an elegant, soaring rendition of the beautiful Canzonetta. The perfectly manicured shape of each musical bar could not obscure the deep musicality and artistic intelligence of Lin's music making. Lin shaped the familiar main theme of the opening Allegro moderato with an Imperial elegance that defined the essence of Tchaikovsky's sound world. His note perfect, brilliant rendition of the cadenza's pyrotechnics was a vivid reminder of Lin's formidable instrumental technique. He attacked the Gypsy fire of the Finale with zest and violinistic gusto. Lin did not capture the blazing intensity of the music that Midori revealed so vividly in her recent performance of the concerto (at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony under the Kurt Masur). His poised, lyrically rhapsodic performance was closer to the heart of Tchaikovsky's 19th century Czarist musical heritage. A wonderful revitalization of a classic by a stellar violinist and an idiomatic conductor! 

Simonov's rousing, deeply Russian interpretation of Tchaikovsky"s "Symphony No.5 in E Minor," Opus 64 was not for the musically faint of heart. Broad dynamic contrasts, vigorous tempos, and thunderous orchestral climaxes were the order of the day. The Moscow strings played with the type of broad rubato that Tchaikovsky and his contemporaries expected. (This was definitely Tchaikovsky a la Russe!) Principal horn Andrey Romanov played his famous solo in the Andante cantabile con alcuna licenza with a wide vibrato that brought back memories of Russian orchestral recordings of the 1950's and 1960's; yet Romanov played with an accuracy that many American and European brass players might envy. Simonov's shaped the Valse: Allegro moderato with balletic sweep. He brought heroic lift to the Finale and drew vivid instrumental colors from his excellent wind players. (The light, athletic flute playing of Sergey Turmilov and the dusky sound and vivid phrasing of principal bassoonist Taras Zhukovsky were standouts.) Here was a Tchaikovsky 5th Symphony in the Serge Koussevitzky manner! 

The concert's only misstep was the opening "Capriccio Italien," Opus 45. Here Simonov's over the top; brass band approach yielded diminishing returns. (This score's charming quasi-Italianate rhythms are best revealed through more subtle, restrained performances. The late Dimitri Mitropoulous's recording remains a classic in this regard.) Simonov was unusually generous with encores. A three movement Suite from "Swan Lake" (the Prelude, "Dance of the Little Swans," and "Spanish Dance") was awash with colorful instrumental hues, dynamic playing, and brooding Tchaikovskian passion. A robust performance of the "Russian Dance" from "The Nutcracker" brought the evening to a triumphant conclusion. 

While Tchaikovsky's music is standard symphonic fare, the combination of an excellent Russian orchestra and a conductor with a vivid affinity for the musical idiom can bring new musical revelations. The patrician artistry of Cho-Liang Lin raised the concert to a level of musical incandescence! 

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