Conductor: Ivan Fischer
Bernstein: Three Dance Episodes from On the Town ("The Great Lover", "Lonely Town: Pas de deux", "Times Square: 1944")
Tchaikovsky: Lensky's aria from Eugene Onegin (cello and orchestra) - Mischa Maisky
Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 33 - Mischa Maisky
Dvorak: Symphony No 8 in G Major, Op. 88
Two days after Radu Lupu's long overdue but definitely worth the wait recital at Strathmore, the guest artist of the National Symphony Orchestra was another soloist much revered in Europe if lesser known in the US: Latvian cellist Mischa Maisky. As part of this year's Focus on Russia at the Kennedy Center, he was to perform two pieces by Tchaikovsky, and those were my main reason to be there last night. Bernstein is, of course, always welcome, and Dvorak's 8th symphony was no doubt going to bring some much needed sunniness to that dreadfully cold evening. Ivan Fischer was back on the podium for the second week in a row, an unfortunately too rare but all the more appreciated occurrence, and, hey, it was Friday!
Things got started in full swing with Bernstein's three numbers from On the Town. Vividly describing the adventures of three sailors on leave in New York City, the composition is both serious and fun, smartly mixing the complex sounds of classical music with more dynamic and languorous jazzy tunes. Orchestra and conductor seemed to be having a ball, and their enjoyment proved to be contagious.
Next we were transported smack in the Romantic period with the Russian master of heart-on-his-sleeve music, Piotr Ilych Tchaikovsky. Eugene Onegin has always been his most popular opera and for some very good reasons, one of them being its outstanding score. In Lensky's aria, the composer beautifully emphasizes the fateful moment when the character foresees that he is about to be killed by his best friend as well as his eternal love for Olga. Having the cello take charge of the melody immediately adds a dark undertone to the natural lyricism of the piece, and Mischa Maisky, all resplendent in a dashing silver shirt competing with his impressive mass of unruly gray hair, gave a remarkably eloquent interpretation of it.
As far as I'm concerned one can never get too much Tchaikovsky, so I was absolutely delighted that the third work on the program turned out to be his Variations on a Rococo Theme. Inspired by the rococo architectural style of the 18th century, the variations are both elegant and whimsical. It is as close to an actual cello concerto as Tchaikovsky has ever gotten and the result is quite spectacular in its wide range of moods and sheer virtuosity. Mischa Maisky's playing was unrestrained and lush, and maestro Fischer made sure that he was ably backed up by the reduced orchestra.
Since everybody seemed to relish this Tchaikovsky double-whammy by giving it an effusive ovation, we were rewarded with a beautifully ethereal Nocturne by yet again the special composer of the evening, a lovely parting gift that could have easily competed with any of the other numbers.
But all good things have to come to an end, so after the intermission we moved on to Dvorak (things could have been worse). In stark contrast to Tchaikovsky's brooding and sophisticated moods, Dvorak's symphony No 8 is all joyous happiness and never fails to bring to my mind Mendelssohn's unabashedly radiant Italian symphony. If the Czech composer did not quite possess the German prodigy's stunning gift for melody, he was not too far behind. Obviously influenced by the bohemian folk music he loved, his 8th symphony is all warmth and cheerfulness, harmony and lyricism, and Ivan Fischer led the more than willing orchestra in a resounding performance of it, easily matching the infectious vivacity and pure joy of the opening Bernstein numbers.