November 17, 2006

Horn soloist, orchestra dazzle

MUSIC REVIEW By Frank Magiera

Wednesday’s Music Worcester concert sounded surprisingly un-Russian for an orchestra with such a curious, Russian-sounding name as the Kremlin Chamber Orchestra.

While the orchestra’s roots are indeed deeply entwined in its native country (if not with the seat of national political power represented by the Kremlin), its performance was wonderfully counterintuitive. There was not a single Russian composer on the official program and the most impassioned phrases evinced from two short contemporary pieces, written by young Massachusetts composers, who just happened to be in the audience. Add to that a spectacular horn concerto as the headliner, a sonata by a renowned opera composer and an opera segment by a composer better known for his orchestral work and ... well, a good time was had by all.

The orchestra’s 17 youthful-looking string players filled virtually every nook and cranny of the stage in Tuckerman Hall and cast enough shadows to prompt the conductor, Misha Rachlevsky, to ask for more stage lights, which lit up the music as well as the ornate splendor of the hall. If the visuals competed, the audio did not. In superb form, the Kremlin Orchestra dispatched its lively, interesting program with genuine aplomb.

The concert opened with Rossini’s Sonata in C major No. 3, a piece written along with five others when the composer was just 12. Unknown until the manuscripts were discovered in the Library of Congress after World War II, the music is typically ethereal and mellifluous, although it’s no “Barber of Seville.” Even more satisfying was the orchestra’s exquisite reading of the introduction to Richard Strauss’ opera “Capriccio” that followed.

Michelle Perry quite plainly dazzled the audience as she joined the orchestra to perform Gordon Jacob’s Concertino for Horn and Strings. Rarely do we get to see horn soloists playing with seasoned chamber orchestras and it was all the more a treat because of Ms. Perry’s charismatic performance. She is an Oklahoma native but lives in Boston, where she performs with the Empire Brass. Muting her French horn with her hand through most of the performance, Ms. Perry kept the sound just vibrant enough to settle it over the rest of the orchestra, except for one brief passage when she stuffed the instrument with a mechanical mute dramatically altering the horn’s timbre.

The second half of the concert opened with Tom Schnauber’s intensely modulated composition titled “In Memory of Henri Temianka,” an homage to his longtime instructor. The piece won the grand prize at the “Homage to Mozart” competition sponsored by the orchestra and it was among three short but exciting contemporary pieces generously performed during Wednesday’s concert. The others, Beth Denisch’s “Fire Mountain Intermezzo” and Leonard Eskin’s “a la pointe,” came as encores. Both Mr. Schnauber and Ms. Denisch took their bows from the audience. (Mr. Leonard Eskin is the orchestra’s principal second violinist.)

Mr. Rachlevsky is a conductor who seemingly does it all, from inventing the orchestra in 1991 to leading it through concerts and recordings, organizing music competitions and even writing the concert’s eloquent program notes. But the concert never quite took on that full-throated sound we identify with Russian orchestras until the second movement of the concluding piece, the Brahms “String Sextet No. 1 in B flat major.” Here the music turned rich and sweeping and the players as well as Mr. Rachlevsky injected a little native body language into their work. The vision of that has passed but it can be heard again. The concert was recorded by radio station WGBH for broadcast on National Public Radio’s “Performance Today.”