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Kavakos, symphony bring Tchaikovsky alive

Leonidas Kavakos
Houston Chronicle

Violin virtuoso Leonidas Kavakos struck an ideal balance in his performance of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with the Houston Symphony Friday night at Jones Hall.

I don't mean just that the soloist and the orchestra, under the astute direction of music director Hans Graf, balanced their "voices" as required for the dialogue of the concerto format - though that was indeed achieved. I also mean that Kavakos' performance balanced the exacting musicianship needed to meet the work's technical demands with an expressiveness that projected the full beauty and emotion of Tchaikovsky's music, its felicitous spontaneity and sheer melodiousness.

From the initial statement of the first movement's famous main theme, Kavakos' lines sang with sonorousness and grace, the high notes silvery and light. He dispatched technical feats with unaffected aplomb, especially in the splashy cadenza. Yet the true inspiration was his instinctive awareness of when to fully savor a phrase with a touch of rallentando - as in the gentler passages of the first movement and most of the brief Canzonetta.

In contrast, while having agreed not to rush past any of the glorious lyricism of the first two movements, Kavakos and Graf just as plainly had decided to "let ‘er rip" in their dynamic realization of the exuberant finale. While the themes of the first two movements are invariably described as songlike, the final movement's themes are pure dance and could be right out of one of the composer's ballets. Here, soloist and orchestra were justified in making the music leap from the stage with a vigor that was almost athletic, racing to an explosive conclusion.

Throughout the Tchaikovsky, the orchestra's work was a model of responsiveness and communication - understated yet precise when in support, commanding when summoning full force for the grand restatement of a key theme, as near the close of the first and final movements.

The evening's other major work was Schumann's Symphony No. 4, actually the second symphony the composer wrote, but withdrew after a poor reception, then extensively revised (chiefly in orchestration) and renumbered a decade later. Controversial in the matter of scholars disagreeing with the composer over which version is preferable - the original wound up favored over Schumann's own improvement - it was experimental for its time in offering its four movements in an uninterrupted flow, connected by linked themes.

Graf shaped a cohesive rendition of what is essentially a study in contrasting moods, moving from a somber, brooding first movement into a second that brightened to a spirit of gentle encouragement, with subtle lilt in strings and woodwinds.

He brought out the boldness in the briskly striding third movement, somewhat akin to a Brahms scherzo. One of the work's neatest effects had the third movement subside with a lulling figure in the woodwinds, as if rocking itself to sleep, just as the final movement began rumbling to life through the orchestra with the power of an awakening giant.

From that point, the work built to a triumphant finale, replete with a vivid coda brashly declaring itself with sudden changes of rhythm and tempo.

The inclusion of two overtures supplied a curtain-raiser for each half of the program. The first half opened with Weber's Oberon Overture; the second, with Schumann's Manfred Overture.