Blossom Music Center, summer home of The Cleveland Orchestra, is about 25 miles south of Cleveland, just to the north of Akron, in a beautiful wooded area nestled next to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Opening in 1968, Blossom presents a wide variety of concerts, both orchestral and popular, and theatrical events each summer. The parabola-shaped Pavilion, with its stained wood stage walls, sits at the bottom of a natural hill, thus creating a grassy amphitheater for audience members who wish to sit outside under the stars. The pavilion itself has excellent acoustics; minimal and sophisticated amplification is used for the more remote audience on the lawn.

Vassily Sinaisky © Marco Borggreve
Vassily Sinaisky
© Marco Borggreve

One of the early highlights of the 2012 Blossom season was the July 14 all-Tchaikovsky concert with Russian conductor Vassily Sinaisky and German cellist Daniel Müller-Schott making their Cleveland Orchestra debuts. Mr. Sinaisky is the music director and chief conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.

The program opened with the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture. Mr. Sinaisky's interpretation strove for the drama in the work, with generous rubato and flexibility of rhythm. The programmatic work, based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, reflects the principal characters and action of the play: a solemn opening section representing Friar Laurence is followed by the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets in an agitated Allegro theme. Finally we hear the "Love" theme, surely one of the most famous melodies in all of classical music. The various themes are developed and repeated at length. The Cleveland Orchestra followed Mr. Sinaisky's lead, with a reading full of passion, yet not over the top. At several points the string sections were overpowered by the brass and percussion. It may have simply been a case of "settling in" to the acoustics of Blossom, which are quite live, because the problem did not recur in the later works on the program.

For Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme Mr. Sinaisky used a reduced-size orchestra, which lent a chamber-music feeling to this charming work, with its consciously "antique" theme patterned on music of the mid-18th century. The variations never stray far from the tune, even when the soloist plays intricate filigree of utmost virtuosity. Daniel Müller-Schott and Mr. Sinaisky proved excellent collaborators. They had frequent visual contact and seemed in sync with each other's musical ideas. Variation III, with its long legato lines, and the mournful Variation VI were especially effective. Variation V, with its mini-cadenzas, showed Mr. Müller-Schott's technical prowess. The perpetual motion of the final variation and coda earned the performers a standing ovation. During one of the softer variations, the audience was treated to one of the occasional benefits of outdoor performance: the brilliant song of a twilight bird in the woods just outside the pavilion, nature's obbligato to the solo cello.

The Symphony no. 1 in G minor ("Winter Daydreams") followed intermission. Tchaikovsky began his first symphony in 1866 when he was 26. The work was introduced in bits and pieces in 1867 and 1868, and fully revised in 1874. It is a youthful work, but demonstrates the musical qualities that became hallmarks of Tchaikovsky's later works, beautiful melody developed and reiterated combined with a sure sense of musical drama. The Cleveland Orchestra has seldom performed this symphony, so this was a rare opportunity to hear it – under the direction of a Russian conductor who has the spirit of Tchaikovsky's works in his blood. Mr. Sinaisky again emphasized the dramatic elements of the work. Although not as overtly programmatic as the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, the first two movements contain titles suggestive of the symphony's subtitle. The first movement, "Reveries of a Winter Journey", opens and closes with mysterious string tremolos, with solo wind themes, and later a theme in the horns very reminiscent of the later "Waltz of the Flowers" in The Nutcracker. The second movement, "Land of Desolation, Land of Mists", is a series of variations, with development and a sense of increasing desolation before the very quiet close. The scherzo third movement was in this performance especially "Mendelssohnian" in its light string passagework.

In this movement and elsewhere in the symphony it was notable that Mr. Sinaisky conducted the music and not the beats. He used minimal gestures for quite long passages, letting The Cleveland Orchestra run on auto-pilot, giving just some important cues, but treating the group as a large chamber ensemble. He was able to shape the music effectively, respecting the orchestra's ability to listen to each other. Although Tchaikovsky's "Winter Dreams" may not be his greatest work, it is known that composer retained a personal affection for it, and this performance made a convincing case for more frequent performances.