Russian orchestra makes triumphant return to Denver

02.25.10
Patrick Summers, Russian National Orchestra
Denver Post

By Kyle MacMillan

The Russian National Orchestra's appearance two years ago in the Newman Center Presents series ranks among Denver's classical highlights of that season and, indeed, the entire decade.

Memories of that concert, along with the ensemble's ranking in December 2008 by Gramophone Magazine as the world's 15th greatest orchestra, led to ample anticipation of its return engagement Wednesday in Gates Concert Hall.

Its Denver stop was part of a cross-country tour marking the 20th anniversary of the founding of the ensemble, the only major Russian orchestra that is privately funded.

Leading the concert two years ago was the orchestra's idiosyncratic principal guest conductor, Vladimir Jurowski, who drew bold, utterly alive playing from this agile, responsive group of more than 90 musicians.

American guest conductor Patrick Summers, music director of the Houston Grand Opera, took the podium Wednesday. If he did not attain the emotional depth or visceral intensity of the orchestra's previous visit, he delivered a high-caliber performance of his own.

Summers conveyed the overall power and sweep of the evening's culminating work, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36. He invested the long opening movement with the requisite moodiness and tension and ended with a fast — probably overly fast — take on the finale.

An added attraction was Denver's first opportunity to hear Yuja Wang. The 23-year-old soloist's distinctive interpretation of Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73, "Emperor," made it clear why she has caused such a stir in classical circles.

It was possible to quibble with a phrasing here or there, but Wang possesses a nuanced sense of pianistic color and shape, creating at several points, for example, a wonderful music-box effect in the upper register of the piano.

Wang brought a kind of poetic sensibility to the slow movement, where she and Summers made sure her often hushed playing was wonderfully balanced with the orchestra's supportive accompaniment.

The young pianist also has a flair for the dramatic, as was evidenced in her breathtaking transition from the slow section to the high-energy finale, which she dashed off with flair.