Sunday, January 28, 2024

Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana - All-Tchaikovsky - 01/20/24

Piotr Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 
Piotr Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64 
Conductor: Beatrice Venezi 
Violin: Stefan Milenkovich 

The quintessential Russian Romantic composer Piotr Tchaikovsky and the uniquely multi-cultural Italian island of Sicilia may not have a lot in common at first sight, but to me and my travel companion Vittorio, they are now forever connected as our first-ever visit to Palermo coincided with an all-Tchaikovsky program by the Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana at the famed Teatro Politeama Garibaldi, which, with its neoclassical circular structure complete with slender columns and a triumphal arch crowned with a quadriga depicting “the triumph of Apollo and Euterpe”, is the city’s oldest and second most important concert hall after the Teatro Massimo. 
Although we were keeping relentlessly busy exploring the Sicilian capital’s seemingly endless parade of stunning historic and artistic treasures, as well as indulging in its seemingly endless supply of wonderful dishes, all of that in a climate even milder than Naples’, we simply had to jump at the chance of simultaneously treating our ears with gorgeous music, our eyes with a striking concert hall, and our feet with a blissful two-hour break at the convenient time of 5:30 PM last Saturday. 
But then, as if to make the occasion even more memorable, the ambivalent weather essentially gave up on us, and what should have been an uneventful walk turned into a dreadful obstacle course involving exasperating drizzle, unfamiliar territory, dark streets, slippery pavement, and a broken umbrella. Against all odds, we made it to the Politeama relatively unscathed, and were amply rewarded by our excellent orchestra seats in the large, attractive, if a bit run-down, space. 

Tchaikovsky’s highly popular violin concerto is without a doubt one of the very first compositions that made me fall in love with classical music. And what’s not to love about it? It’s big, it’s bold, and it’s beautiful. Although I’ve been lucky enough to hear it performed by some of the top violinists of our times, it had more or less disappeared from my concert-goer’s life these past few years, and it was high time to become reacquainted with it, a bit like catching up with an old friend I hadn’t heard from in a long time but was still very fond of. 
I must confess that I had never heard of Serbian violinist Stefan Milenkovich until last Saturday, probably because his impressive international career and no less impressive support of international humanitarian causes have not revolved extensively around the United States, despite stints at New York’s Juilliard School as student and teacher. Showing up in a long black coat with black spangles scintillating on top was certainly a sure-fire way to make an unforgettable first impression, but it quickly became clear that he did not need that kind of fashion statement to get noticed. 
His musical skills were indeed substantial enough to account for his having been tapped for one of the most exciting, but also one of the most challenging, violin concertos in the repertoire, and while his performance may not have been one of the most transcendent interpretations I have ever witnessed, his more restrained approach proved that there is more than one stairway to Tchaikovskian heaven. Reliably backed up by the respectable orchestra under the baton of young, petite, but unmistakably assertive Italian maestra Beatrice Venezi, he delivered the goods in spades. 
Encouraged by our enthusiastic clapping, Milenkovich came back for an encore that had nothing to do with Russian Romanticism but, as he pointed out himself  in Italian, was the only piece he could think of after Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece: The “Allemande” from Johannes Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2. And that's how the first part of the program was concluded with a poised and heartfelt take on the Baroque classic. 

More Tchaikovsky was on the way after intermission with his sprawling symphony No. 5, another perennial favorite of concert programs that I hadn’t heard in a long time, but that immediately reminded me why I got hooked on Tchaikovsky in the first place: The attention-grabbing opening fate motive, the wide range of themes, the luscious love song, the highly dramatic grand finale. Nonplussed by the size and complexity of her mission, Venezi led the orchestra through the 50-minute marathon with plenty of confidence and dynamism, appearing barely out of breath after having crossed the finish line. 

Our action-packed Saturday night was not over though, as we got caught in a vicious downpour upon exiting the concert hall, briefly got lost in the general dark and wet confusion, threw away the decidedly useless umbrella, and eventually took cover in a nearby hotel from where we waited for what seemed like ages for a taxi due to serious traffic jams, before making it to the apartment relatively unscathed again. 
After a brief and much needed respite, we started hearing loud dance music nearby, and realized that the usually quiet restaurant across the street had turned into a night club for a private party, which gave me an unexpected and not entirely welcome opportunity to relive my youth until midnight with the biggest hits of 1980s and 1990s. And then the rest of the night was (finally) silence.

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