From Russia, with skill

03.07.10
Patrick Summers, Russian National Orchestra
Sarasota Herald-Tribune

By Richard Storm

The Russian National Orchestra, an independent ensemble, not state-owned, brought enormous skill and excitement to the Van Wezel on Friday evening, demonstrating again the power of musical energy in the hands of highly motivated musicians.

Under the athletic leadership of their American guest conductor, Patrick Summers, music director of the Houston Grand Opera, and belying their moderate size by today's standards, the orchestra produced sound of impressive power and solidity, transparent and beautifully balanced from top to bottom.

Contrary to expectation, the program included no Russian music until the exuberant encore, a dance from Tchaikovsky's opera, "The Snow Maiden," in which caution was thrown to the winds and the percussion delivered infectious Russian rhythmic drive.

Prior to that, however, two iconic works by Beethoven were treated to incisive renditions of memorable clarity and graceful strength.

The "Coriolan" overture, which begins with a forthright declaration that this is the story of a fallen warrior, soon moves to touching expression of the sensitive aspects of his nature.

Despite the dry acoustics of the Van Wezel, the audience was bathed in a rich European sound, consistent across all the voices of the orchestra, in this case disposed on the stage with the violins divided to the left and right of the conductor, the cellos and violas facing each other, resulting in an unusually tight blend.

Beethoven's beloved Piano Concerto No. 5, known as the "Emperor," followed. This performance, in which Yuja Wang quite simply blew us away, was characterized by musicianship that transcended virtuosity or flawless technique, both of which were in ample supply but subsidiary to clarity of expression and respect for the composer's vision.

An austere and lovely experience was the result.

The program was completed by a sumptuous and energetic performance of Antonin Dvorak's endlessly inventive and somewhat subversive eighth symphony.

As is often the case with this composer, his Bohemian roots burst forth to bend the conventions of Romanticism toward folkloric expression.

Dance rhythms, off-kilter brass salvos, precise but flexible ensemble -- all these were in generous supply, under Summers' balletic direction, and resulted in a thrilling performance of this beloved work.

Even a brief bubble in the famous trumpet fanfare that begins the final movement didn't spoil the fun.