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Seattle Symphony, charismatic violinist plumb Russian brilliance and depth

11.06.09
Leonidas Kavakos
Seattle Times

By Bernard Jacobson

Few ovations can have erupted in Benaroya Hall's decade of concerts to match the roar that followed Leonidas Kavakos's performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto on Thursday evening. And though star appeal without corresponding artistic gifts is an all-too-common phenomenon, on this occasion the playing fully justified the enthusiasm.

Kavakos ranks among the greatest instrumentalists of our time. Equipped with a formidable technique, the charismatic Greek drew from his 1782 Guadagnini violin a tone at once pure, warm and voluminous, seeming to sail effortlessly through the richest orchestral textures. Within the past three years, he has given us superlative performances of Bartók's Second Violin Concerto and Shostakovich's late, great sonata for the instrument. Now it is heartening to find him equally at home in a standard romantic concerto that is too often treated as a mere vehicle for technical display. While throwing off the virtuoso passage work with thrilling brilliance, he yet fully realized all the elegance and nobility he has said he finds in the piece.

The all-Russian program ended with Shostakovich. A much more ambivalent work than the Tchaikovsky, the composer's 15th and last symphony plumbs extraordinary depths of expression and yet avoids any hint of bombast or overstatement. Much of it plays out at intensely quiet dynamic levels, sometimes on the brink of inaudibility.

Nearly 40 years ago, reviewing Eugene Ormandy's American premiere of the work in Philadelphia, I found it to be a marvelous piece of music, full of melody and subtle poetry. It made that first impression despite a performance that I recall as anemic and under-characterized in comparison with the vividness, profundity, and sheer controlled power that the Seattle Symphony is bringing to it this week under the baton of Gerard Schwarz, a Shostakovich exponent second to none.

In the nature of the piece, important instrumental solos abound, and all of them were beautifully played. I cannot fail to mention in particular Ko-ichiro Yamamoto's superb trombone solo, Eric Gaenslen's and Jordan Anderson's eloquent cello and bass solos, and the immaculate contributions of Scott Goff and Zartouhi Dombourian-Eby on flute and piccolo.

On such a program, Borodin's unfinished Third Symphony could not stand as anything more than a curtain-raiser. But it was a thoroughly enjoyable one, and it too received a fine performance, launched by Ben Hausmann's sensuous oboe solo.