November 18, 2001

Chamber Orchestra Kremlin covers all styles with grace

By ELAINE SCHMIDT | Special to the Journal Sentinel

Is there nothing the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin can't do well?

The orchestra, an ensemble of 16 strings under music director Misha Rachlevsky, gave a program that spanned continents, centuries and genres at Wisconsin Lutheran College on Friday evening. The musicians played with grace, style and charm.

The group hit the ground running with Mozart's "Divertimento" in D major. The opening Allegro and final Presto flew by at seemingly impossible tempos. But tempos stayed constant, under light bows and remarkably unison phrasing. An expressive Andante movement, full of fluid, broad gestures, rounded out the piece.

Next came the wrenching Shostakovich "Chamber Symphony," a string quartet heard here in a Barshai arrangement for orchestra. Shostakovich created distinct, powerful statements of emotion with each of the piece's five movements. The musicians connected to those statements with the first notes of each movement.

But the choir and orchestra made the big choruses at the beginning and climax sound thick. The choir's effortful singing kept the fierce numbers depicting the bloodthirsty mob from generating much electricity. Baritone Russell Franks sang his numbers resonantly, but his awkwardness negated the effect. Except for the flowing flute solos, the orchestra's contributions to the arias were either clumsy -- especially the overbearing oboes that competed with Pudwell -- or bland.

Rachlevsky likes to go straight from the Shostakovich into Bach's "Contrapunctus No.!" from "The Art of the Fugue." The Bach, played with elegance and dignity, was on one hand a tonic for the unsettling Shostakovich, and on the other, equally powerful.

WPal Jardanyi's "Concertino for Violin and Orchestra" was eloquently played by concertmaster Vladislav Bezroukov. It was followed by a wonderfully balanced reading of Dvorak's "Serenade for Strings." Rachlevsky and the group captured the light-hearted sentiment of the piece without lapsing into saccharine statements.

This is an ensemble of remarkably tight discipline and heart-on-the-sleeve expressiveness. The combination is completely compelling. Rachlevsky conducted all but the Jardanyi from memory and without a podium. In constant communication with the players, he uses the baton as optional equipment. He will indicate tempo changes or clarify tricky rhythms with the stick, but he then abandons it to use both hands to shape phrases.

All of his gestures are precisely attached to the music, and they are followed instantly by the ensemble.

The orchestra moves as single voice through even the fastest of passages. These are remarkable players playing with remarkable unity.