|A skilled purveyor of the Russian sound.|
From the opening notes at Severance Hall on Friday night, it was clear that guest conductor Vassily Sinaisky had brought more than an outstanding pedigree with him. Under his baton, the Cleveland Orchestra sounded warm and full-blooded, with its trademark silken strings glistening even more than usual. If the sound wasn’t entirely Russian, it was a lot closer to Moscow than Cleveland.
Which was no surprise. The best conductors can transform the sound of a skilled orchestra to fit the program, particularly when the music is in their blood. Trained at the Leningrad Conservatory and apprenticed to the Moscow Philharmonic, Sinaisky is currently Music Director and Chief Conductor at Russia’s crown cultural jewel, the Bolshoi Theatre. In concert and opera halls throughout Europe, he has shown a remarkable ability to bring the Russian repertoire to life with British, German, Czech and other orchestras.
The opening piece was a treat – Anatoly Liadov’s seldom-performed Eight Russian Folk Songs. A set of miniatures that range from meditative to merry, the songs are relatively simple in form but with enough variety and fine detail to give the conductor something to work with. By the second song, “Kolyada,” Sinaisky had the orchestra in a rich emotional vein, evoking tender feelings of a beloved homeland with the aid of some particularly fine cello work by Richard Weiss.
One of Sinaisky’s trademarks is his combination of warmth and precision, which came to the fore in songs like the “Dance of the Gnat” and “Tale of the Bird.” Light and playful, they were also sparkling displays of sharp, carefully crafted timing and playing. Sweet in tone and smart in execution, Liadov’s songs were a tasty apertif.
Kirill Gerstein joined Sinaisky for the centerpiece of the evening, Tchaikovsky’s Piano concerto No. 1. Gerstein was born in Russia but trained mostly in the U.S., at Berklee and Tanglewood. The jazz influences that he absorbed listening to his parents’ record collection as a child are clear in his style, which is technically fluent but hard and clipped, with phrasing that borders on improvisation. At times, it sounds like a meeting of two musical languages.
This was particularly evident in the Tchaikovsky concerto, an orchestral staple weighted even more by a century of tradition. Gerstein gave it a modern burnish, biting off notes and energizing the solo passages with his own distinctive breaks and rhythms. Sinaisky gave him all the room he wanted, but otherwise kept the orchestra at high volume, the sound brimming with colors and energy.
Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3 was pieced together from material that started as an opera, and it sounds like it, with sections that set atmosphere or describe specific characters. This played to one of Sinaisky's strengths, and his version of the symphony was a study in how to knit together seemingly disparate elements in seamless fashion. Colors flitted in and out of the sound, textures waxed and waned, sharp dissonances flashed like sudden flames – and beneath it all, the bottom pulsed steadily, like blood from a beating heart. It was a riveting performance, particularly of a piece that breaks so many structural rules.
Percussion builds throughout the symphony into a final explosion capped by a reverberating gong, which provided an appropriate close to an evening of fresh, engaging music. And a good transition to that other Russian master of symphonic percussion – Dmitri Shostakovich, who will share the stage in a few weeks with Beethoven in a festival titled “Fate and Freedom.” Even Sinaisky would find that pairing a challenge.
For more on Vassily Sinaisky: http://www.intermusica.co.uk/artists/conductor/vassily-sinaisky/biography
For more on Kirill Gerstein: http://www.kirillgerstein.com/