This concert by the Virginia Symphony Orchestra under its music director JoAnn Falletta featured (mainly) well-known favorites, including several larger-scale pieces flanked by ballet selections.

The program opened with “Winter”, the first of four tableaux that make up Alexander Glazunov’s ballet The Seasons. Premiered in 1900, this work contains the most impressive ballet music penned by the composer. The Seasons, which has a rather-too-precious storyline involving foliage, flowers and forest creatures, is never staged these days, and yet its melodies are more memorable than those in Raymonda, the one Glazunov ballet that's still mounted.

JoAnn Falletta © Brendan Bannon
JoAnn Falletta
© Brendan Bannon

In the “Winter” tableau played by the VSO, the various musical numbers representing frost, hail and snow were beautifully presented – delicate woodwinds conveying an icy brilliance while tremulous strings fairly shivered in their accompaniment. Particularly effective was VSO principal flautist Debra Cross in several captivating solo passages. In terms of descriptive writing, the music was exceptional – and for this we should give Glazunov fair dues. Indeed, in Falletta’s winsome interpretation, Glazunov’s ballet music came across as the equal to Tchaikovsky’s (it isn’t, but the fact that it sounded that way speaks volumes about today’s performance).

Next, cellist Julian Schwarz joined the orchestra in presenting Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, op. 33. Although composed a quarter century before Glazunov’s ballet, the two works share similarities in their delicate treatment of orchestral color. In keeping with the Rococo stage-setting, Tchaikovsky scaled back on the orchestral forces he usually employed, including eschewing percussion altogether. The Rococo theme itself is actually Tchaikovsky’s own (and many of the variations certainly sound more like the 19th century than the 18th), but the composer captures the sense of the era quite well – probably more effectively than he was able to accomplish in his orchestral suite Mozartiana.

Schwarz's interpretation was fascinating, possessing more depth of feeling than one sometimes encounters in this piece. Instead of tossing the Variations off as a mere virtuoso number, Schwarz gave us interesting contrasts – treating some of the variations more like... Tchaikovsky. This isn't to say that it was a big Romantic wallow, as there were many moments when the style of the playing was squarely in the Classical sphere. Falletta and the Virginians provided deft accompaniment, with precision ensemble that blended beautifully with the solo cello. The final variation was a real romp – appropriately showy –  and it was like the cherry on top of an interpretation that was as effective as it was original.

In a late addition to the program, Schwarz and the orchestra also presented the Élégie in C minor by Gabriel Fauré. Its quiet fervor was remindful of Wagner in places – not normally what I associate with this particular French composer – but was a very valid interpretation.

Following the intermission, Falletta and the VSO musicians presented the Symphony no. 5 in E flat major by Jean Sibelius. If we wish to be historically accurate, this piece is a product of the waning years of the Russian Empire – with the first version of the symphony completed in 1915 and the revised version finalized just as Finland was gaining its independence. Of course, Sibelius was a patriotic Finn and his music bears little resemblance to anything particularly Russian.

I knew today's performance was going to be something special from the very first moments, which featured very impressive horn passages. In fact, the woodwind and brass playing all through the symphony were a joy to hear, with noteworthy color, balances and ensemble. In the first movement, Falletta built the momentum inexorably, leading to an ending that was so thrilling it elicited spontaneous applause.

The second movement's theme and variations were also masterfully presented, with plaintive oboe and string passages playing out over a background of muted brass harmonies. Here again, we encountered uncommonly beautiful sonorities. In the final Allegro molto movement, the swan theme soared gloriously over the agitated sounds of the rest of the orchestra. It’s one of the most famous passages in symphonic music, and the VSO played it to the hilt – as it did those final declamatory six chords that end the work.

Rounding out the concert was the Act 2 pas de deux from Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker. The genius of Tchaikovsky is how he could take a simple downward octave scale in the lower strings and turn it into an absolute triumph. The VSO playing was ravishing, no doubt leaving many in the audience wanting more than just this one excerpt.  

The programming strategy of bookending today's concert with ballet selections may have been a bit unorthodox, but the end result was an event that was not only musically strong, but also highly memorable.

****1