Third-rate playing creates static for Moscow Radio Symphony at Kravis

By Joe Banno

The heart sank with the first wind chord of the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, as it opened the Moscow State Radio Symphony Orchestra’s all-Tchaikovsky program at the Kravis Center on Tuesday.  Here was an ensemble of allegedly professional musicians –– who must have had Tchaikovsky spoon-fed to them from their earliest years –– kicking off one of the composer’s most ubiquitously popular hits with queasy intonation and far-from-mellifluous blend. That might be forgivable if things rapidly improved.  But the twenty-odd minutes of the overture brought all manner of gaffes and wince-inducing moments, from muffed entrances to raw tone, poor balances to ham-fisted delivery.

Conductor Alexei Kornienko should perhaps be spared some of the blame when it comes to the orchestra’s clunky execution.  But it’s hard not to look to the podium when the tension never left a tepid boil, the crescendos lacked weight, bass-drum and cymbal accents were cartoonishly cranked up to compensate for soft-centered playing elsewhere, and the lack of a cogent line resulted in Romeo and Juliet coming off as a sequence of rote sentences that never added up to a compelling story.

The playing improved, marginally, for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.  But for every lovely passage from, say, the combined strings, there followed a moment of scrambled ensemble in the first violins, or a parched, under-pitched entrance from the cellos.  The flutist would waft one solo with the utmost gentleness, then sledge-hammer the next one.

Violinist Nadezda Tokareva deserved better treatment.  She may not be an absolutely flawless player, or a particularly revelatory one.  But she knows how the piece goes, seemed undaunted by the runs and tricky harmonics in the cadenza, and infused the big tunes with a nicely-gauged smattering of gypsy flair.  Add to that a notably sweet tone and genuine smarts when it came to phrasing, and you have a soloist who should have held out for a better orchestra.

The less-frequently performed Tchaikovsky First Symphony (the so-called Winter Dreams Symphony) drew a more engaged sound from the musicians, including a second movement oboe solo that was truly distinguished.  There were fewer community-orchestra moments here too, though again, consistency was the problem.  How frustrating to enjoy the fat, burnished sound of the horns (to single out one of many sections) only to have them peter out by the end of the phrase, or come in late the next time around.

A second-tier orchestra like this one could have gotten away with such third-tier playing, or worse, a half-century ago.  But with orchestras all over the map improving year after year, the kind of slipshod work the MSRSO brought to West Palm Beach on Tuesday––Tokareva’s lovely solo turn aside––has no place on a pricey subscription series.

Joe Banno is an award-winning director in theatre, opera and film, based in the Washington, DC area. He has been a classical music critic for over twenty years, serving as a contributing reviewer to the Washington Post since 1993 and as opera critic for Washington City Paper from 1989 through 2007.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Third-rate playing creates static for Moscow Radio Symphony at Kravis”

  1. Posted Feb 02, 2010 at 6:15 pm by John Bledsoe

    Thank you for saying it as it was. Neither Birmingham, Sarasota nor Orlando were treated any better. The New York agents (CAMI) should be repremanded for fosting this level of performance onto the public. The cost to the local concert societies was $80,000 per performance.

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