Just when despondency was setting in about the state of concert giving in North America, along came the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. The large crowd at the Annenberg Theater applauded warmly as the 22 musicians took the stage with nary an “A” nor a commercial message (sponsor thank you, or the useless “please turn off you cellphones …”). Music director Constantine Orbelian was fast on their heels, smiled his appreciation, raised his arms and the music began.
And so for the first time in far too many years, the sense of anticipation that permeates the hall before the art begins—with minimal fuss—right into the opening bars of masters past was felt and fulfilled. Merci mille fois!
The evening was a tantalizing mixture of the familiar and the unduly neglected. The constant thread was the incredible skill and talent of the string ensemble. No passagework too onerous, no pitch too high, no phrase too long. Every inch of every bow was used, producing a volume of tone that, in most cases, was double that of a band twice their number.
Unfortunately, the hall’s design worked against them. The quartet of acoustic panels were no match for the parched fly and wing curtains that greedily devoured more vibrations that they permitted past the apron. For the most part, this produced truncated endings rather than refined; anemic tone instead of full with “ring.” The exception was during the muted sections (particularly the return of the theme in the Serenade’s "Elegie," where an astonishingly personal pianissimo was the finest I have heard in decades). There, the leaner lines slipped by the thirsty drapes, yielding the most satisfying sounds of the night.
With such talent before him, Orbelian seemed content to follow the tune, waving his arms in concert, and let the music speak for itself. That approach produced a bloodless “La Casa Diavolo” (all the more ironic since the last time I was in this room, at last year’s international film festival, there was a screening of Guy Maddin’s film-ballet Dracula, which overflowed with devilish glee, cross-reference below), whose redeeming moment came at the opening of the “Andante” where the combined violins delivered an exceptional opening phrase in flawless unison.
Carol Rosenberger was the affable soloist for Mozart’s “Jeunehomme” concerto. In a perfect fit with Orbelian, she took a straightforward approach and made child’s play of the many technical and rhythmic demands of this buoyant essay. Soaring above the muted strings, savouring the minor mode (unconsciously foreshadowing the Concertante for Violin and Viola), the “Andantino” was the best of the bunch. The “Rondeau” sped off with the cheeky abandon of the grace note dialogue, but then took itself too seriously in the contrasting middle sections. More “jeune” less “homme,” please.
After intermission, I moved to the back of the room and found the overall sound somewhat better. All the better to enjoy soprano Araxia Davtian’s contribution of five accompanied songs and one truly solo encore. Sayat-Nova’s "Lament" was moving and thoughtful, with just a few excursions below pitch; the jaunty “Lullaby” was far more successful; then the waltz, “Im mairik” had a wonderful lilt yet, strangely, was delivered on a single dynamic plane. Davtian came into her own with a relaxed and beautifully flowing “Chant” with an entirely convincing climax; Khachaturian’s perennial “Drinking Song” was, well, spirited. In it, the oboe was heard to good advantage (the pairs of oboes and horns provided discreet support throughout the proceedings) and the song’s constant zest and sense of fun was greatly assisted by the double bass—the “keeper of the pulse” for this first-rate ensemble.
Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings was given a technically exhilarating reading (surely they could play it in their sleep) but, apart from the deeply moving “Elegie,” suffered from too many beats from the podium (I’d never thought of subdividing the powerful opening measures) and favouring string solutions over musical ones in the tricky bits (the ending of the first movement looked fine, but any sense of finality was lost in being too careful—Rafael Kubelik, for one, would have let the resin fall where it might).
It fell to the unnamed concertmaster to provide the greatest passion of the night. His solo offerings in the second folk-song encore, avoided sentimentality and drew pure emotion from its searing lines, miles above the ostinato accompaniment. If only that sense of love, freedom and abandon could find its way into the masterworks that preceded. JWR