The first subscription concert of the Virginia Symphony's new season under music director JoAnn Falletta delivered vibrant tone painting in three showpieces, beginning with Tchaikovsky's symphonic fantasy Francesca da Rimini. From Onegin to Manfred to Romeo & Juliet, the theme of doomed (or illicit) love runs through numerous Tchaikovsky compositions, and Francesca falls neatly into this category. The 1876 score, which was based on Canto V of Dante's Divine Comedy, covers the emotional waterfront. Indeed, the composer's depiction of two lovers trapped in the Second Circle of Hell includes as much beauty and pathos as it does fire and brimstone.

Alexander Gavrylyuk and the Virginia Symphony
© David Beloff

Falletta and the orchestra took us on a hellish descent with dark, threatening brass stalking the frightened woodwinds and on into the fury of the windstorm. If anything, the quiet middle section was even more emotionally gripping. Here the love theme of Francesca and Paolo shone with affecting intensity and beauty, with the superlative VSO woodwinds (particularly clarinet, flute and bassoon) giving poignant voice to the lovers' tale.

But inevitably the music of the tempestuous opening returned – more fearsome than before – with Falletta whipping the orchestra into a frenzy as the final ten repeated chords of Tchaikovsky's score were pounded out. This remarkable VSO performance left little room for doubt that Tchaikovsky's view of intimate relationships could only ever have one result: Fate wins out.

The second piece on the program, Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, has something of a devilish nature as well. Famed violinist Nicolò Paganini was such a virtuoso, some thought he must be possessed by Satan. Rachmaninov endorsed that narrative by including the Dies irae in his piece, and although the composition has its share of "flash and dash" – not to mention that achingly beautiful 18th variation – much of the music has dark characteristics as well.

All of these contrasts were brought out magnificently by Rachmaninov specialist Alexander Gavrylyuk in a performance that was note-perfect as well as being interpretively impressive. His bright and crisp pianism made the music gleam. In other places he was ruminative, while heart-on-sleeve romanticism wasn't neglected either, but thankfully kept in check. This is later Rachmaninov, after all – a bit leaner in expression – and Gavrylyuk's interpretation emphasized that to very good effect.

Falletta and the Virginia musicians delivered ample color and nuance, providing just the right orchestral sheen to go along with Gavrylyuk’s conception of the music. Also notable was the precise synchronization between the pianist and orchestra, something that's difficult to achieve in this particular piece.

One of the intriguing aspects of the Rhapsody is the significance of the number “24”.  Rachmaninov selected the last of Paganini's violin caprices – No. 24 – as the theme for his composition. The theme itself is 24 measures in length, and Rachmaninov’s score is a set of 24 variations. I checked my watch, and today's performance clocked in at – you guessed it – 24 minutes! Responding to the heartfelt appreciation for his performance, Gavrylyuk treated the audience to an encore. More Rachmaninov but of a vastly different character: the poetic Vocalise.

After intermission, the orchestra presented both suites from Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé, joined by the Virginia Symphony Chorus. It's always a treat to hear this music the way Ravel intended it to sound, and the composer's inclusion of voices was very much in keeping with Parisian ballets of the time.

The year of the ballet's premiere (1912) is significant, as it was one of Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes mountings of six full-length scores (by Nikolai Tcherepnin, Florent Schmitt, Ravel and Stravinsky) inside just four years. The fact that nearly all of them have achieved greater success in the concert hall tells us much about the worth of the music, which transcends the staging. Ravel must have sensed this at the time too, when he referred to Daphnis as "a great choreographic symphony... a vast musical fresco, less scrupulous in questions of archeology than faithful to the Greece of my dreams."

In the first suite, the VSO conjured up the foreboding atmosphere of the pirate's encampment, including an impressive contribution by the VSO Chorus in highly challenging a cappella passages. At the beginning of the second suite, the woodwind runs depicting dawn were amazingly clean. Indeed, throughout the entire suite the woodwinds were particularly laudable, including all-important solo and ensemble passages played by principal flautist Debra Cross along with fellow section players Joanne White and Ya-ching Chen, plus Rachel Ordaz on the piccolo. The chorus rejoined the orchestra in an electrifying Danse générale to conclude the ballet. With the phalanx of the combined musical forces sweeping everything before them, it was a spectacular ending to a most memorable season-opening concert.