Leonidas Kavakos may be renowned as a world-class violinist, but the Greek musician also has much to offer from the podium, to judge by his direction of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in this weekend's video stream. Kavakos led the orchestra in two Bohemian works in which lyrical folk-like melodies rise ominously from passages steeped in darkness and mystery.

Leonidas Kavakos conducts the Rotterdam Philharmonic
© Karen van Gilst

Some 70 musicians were seated not quite six feet apart on stage in De Doelen's Grote Zaal. With not a face mask in sight, the performance had all the earmarks of what we used to consider a normal concert experience, except that the hall’s 2,200 seats were empty. The large ensemble sprawled across a contemporary-looking stage surrounded in muted shades of beige and copper with overhead lighting. The charismatic conductor, casually attired and without a tie, provided thoughtful, but energetic and resilient performances of György Ligeti’s Concert Românesc followed by Antonín Dvořák's Seventh Symphony.

Composed in 1951, Ligeti's “concerto” predates the portentous output of one of modernism’s most respected avant-garde. Here, in four brisk movements, the composer reveals his love of the folk music of his native Hungary. The work is filled with lilting, yet strangely solemn folk elements, a malaise one doesn’t find in similarly scored selections by Kodály or Bartók. The Rotterdam Philharmonic takes its work very seriously; this is a somber-looking group, but deeply engrossed in the music, and very physical in presenting this music to their unseen audience.

Leonidas Kavakos conducts the Rotterdam Philharmonic
© Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra

Kavakos’ approach was balanced and wise. I am not aware of any “program” or narrative for this music, but if there is, it seems to involve a pastoral conversation between hunters (French horns) and shepherds (oboe and English horn). This is done most effectively, with the horns at times creating an uncanny sense of distance. And a word about those horns. This is one of the finest quartets of French horns I have heard in recent memory: truly outstanding. Indeed, there were specific effects and passages, throughout the orchestra, so wonderful that one almost immediately craves hearing them again.

From its opening with the patter of timpani mallets and a brief duet between French horn and oboe until its conclusion in a grand chorale, Dvořák’s Seventh sounded as magnificent as it is familiar. Throughout its four varied movements, the work was propelled by a heartbeat you could feel rather than hear. Under Kavakos’ direction, the work was driven, the extraordinary short solos of the principal players in woodwinds and strings clearly highlighted but never detracting from the whole. With the exception of the French horns, however, the brass were not particularly conspicuous, through no fault of their own. This could be a recording issue, but I think it is more likely to be Kavakos’ artistic choice to emphasize the lush mellowness of the strings with their undercurrent of darkness and the penetrating cameos provided by the woodwinds and French horns.

The Rotterdam Philharmonic plays Dvořák
© Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra

Kavakos appeared confident and relaxed throughout, as though he grew up conducting this orchestra, the movements of his left hand warm and expressive as the baton in the right provided an alert, attentive beat. We can only hope to hear more from Kavakos the conductor in the coming years, and more from the excellent Rotterdam Philharmonic as well.

This performance was reviewed from the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra's video stream