Recap: 'Tchaikovsky Festival's' Russian music warms American hearts in Grand Rapids Symphony's performance

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

‘Tis the season for Russian music.

For several weeks now, the snow and ice that has fallen had made West Michigan feel less like the Great Lake State and more like the Russian steppes. Mother Nature demands we embrace it, and so we shall.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger led the Grand Rapids Symphony and Symphony Chorus in Russian music to warm an American heart with two familiar works by Tchaikovsky and two largely unknown to orchestral audiences.

Cellist Andrei Ioniță joined the orchestra for a delightful performance of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme on Friday, Feb. 8. Lehninger ended the evening with a brilliant performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in DeVos Performance Hall.

The program in the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday. Tickets start at $18 adults, $5 students.

Ioniță is Romanian, but he’s also winner of the cello division of the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition in which playing Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations is required. If his Tchaikovsky is good enough for Moscow, it’s good enough for Grand Rapids.

Truthfully it was more than good enough.

The Rococo Variations are a joy to experience. Tchaikovsky revered Mozart among all other composers, and the 19th century Russian paid homage to the 18th century German with music that is Romantic yet with a light touch.  A simple, little theme in the cello is followed by seven variations of increasing complexity. It’s a sparkling panorama technical pyrotechnics and lush lyricism.

Ioniță plays with passion and warmth. His florid passages appear light-hearted but substantial at the same time. This time of year, you expect coughing and sneezing in a full house. Yet the cellist, hunched over his instrument while executive a difficult passage, would complete it, lift his eyes to the audience, and pause in complete silence before resuming the next phrase.

Ioniță followed that Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile for Cello and Orchestra, an arrangement Tchaikovsky created from the second movement of his First String Quartet. With its principal theme drawn from a Ukrainian folk song, it was a crowd pleaser from its premiere. It is said that a performance once brought the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy to tears.

At just 8 minutes in length, it functioned rather like a planned encore with orchestral accompaniment.

Where the Rococo Variations often are virtuosic prose, the Andante is lyrical poetry. Ionia made beautiful music with it.

The 25-year old cellist, largely based in Europe, is just starting his performing career in the United States. No doubt, it will be a successful one.

Over nearly 90 concert seasons, the music of Tchaikovsky has figured prominently in the repertoire of the Grand Rapids Symphony. And of all the repertoire by the Russian master, the orchestra has played no concert work by Tchaikovsky more frequently that the Symphony No. 4. Influenced by a disastrous marriage and an attempted suicide, with its theme of fate.

It’s a warhorse’s warhorse, but the performance, simply put, was a highlight of the season.

Lehninger, conducting from memory, led a performance full of passion in the outer movements and precision in the scherzo. Muscular brass, balletic strings and sweet winds, all exciting and expressive, led to an outburst of applause at the end of the first movement.  A delightfully yearning solo by Assistant Principal Oboist Alexander Miller set the stage for the second movement, full of wistful melodies both pleasant and painful.

The finale simply flew out of the gate. Lehninger coaxed, massaged, nudged and maneuvered alternating themes with controlled intensity before unleashing the unbridled force of a powerful return of the Fate theme for a real roof-raiser of a performance.

Likely the Andante Cantabile for Cello and Orchestra never has been performed in Grand Rapids before. The Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus joined the orchestra for a piece it’s likely few in the audience had ever heard of, let alone heard.

“At Bedtime,” a short setting of an evening prayer by poet Nikolai Ogartyov, is a work Tchaikovsky composed during his student days. Even at age 23, the Russian romanticism of the budding composer is apparent in the 7-minute piece with texts such as as “forgive our sins and relieve our burning suffering with your soothing breath.”

The Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, singing in Russian, gave an exceptional performance of the work that is dark and dominant though with a touch of optimistic sadness all at once. Originally composed for unaccompanied chorus, it is exposed music that offers an impassioned plea of one whose “soul is weather by the storms of the day.”

That’s an experience everyone within the sound of its hearing understood all too well.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 07:00
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