Pletnev, Jackiw shine with Russian National Orchestra

Stefan Jackiw, Russian National Orchestra
The Orange County Register

By Timothy Mangan

On Friday, the world’s oldest major orchestra played in Orange County. On Saturday, the world’s youngest major orchestra played in Cerritos (at the Center for the Performing Arts). Both orchestras brought along a young violin soloist to perform a classic violin concerto. Both orchestras programmed big ninth symphonies to close their concerts. Both orchestras gave terrific performances.

But they were otherwise completely different. The conductors had a lot to do with it. Riccardo Chailly, music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (Friday), turns the fire up high under his ensemble, and fans the flames. Mikhail Pletnev, the founder (in 1990) and music director of the Russian National Orchestra, for all his musicality, might have been a traffic cop on the podium Saturday, and a bored one at that. Deadpan is his style.

It comes out in the music (but not in a bad way). Pletnev, also one of the world’s most interesting pianists, doesn’t like to push or prod a musical interpretation too much. He let’s the music be, allows it to gather its own steam. His conducting is orderly and his beat is serene, and so is the music resulting from it. Without a heavy beat, the music moves forward easily and gracefully, without resistance in slow or fast tempos, as if it were on ice skates.

His Russian National Orchestra mirrored Pletnev’s approach Saturday. Its tone is warm, but it waits and waits, stating the musical facts in an easy manner, no muss, no fuss. But it’s not a lack of commitment. It’s an attitude that strong music, clearly and cleanly dispatched, will do its thing if you let it, and it did.

Shostakovich’s satiric Symphony No. 9 closed the concert. The work, written in 1945 at the end of World War II, was supposed to be the triumphant conclusion to his trilogy of war symphonies. It has its dark, melancholy and grotesque moments, but these are framed, in the first and last movements, by a clownishness and buffoonery that end up making fun of the serious stuff. A piccolo dances impishly in the opening movement, a trombone as oafish partner. The main theme of the finale is as banal as it gets (a scale up and down, basically). Shostakovich at first works it up with mock heavy-handedness, but eventually he unleashes the theme in all of its silliness (a tambourine busts out at the climax), a jester razzing the authorities.

I’ve heard more explicitly hilarious accounts of this symphony (Bernstein recorded one), but Pletnev and the orchestra’s just-the-facts-ma’am approach had its compensations, including tight ensemble and solo playing, and a sense of both drama and comedy that was the very definition of natural, no overacting allowed. The ending (thus) caught the audience off guard; it was unsure if it should applaud.

American Stefan Jackiw, the son of two physicists and a graduate of Harvard who turns 25 this year, was the soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. To be perfectly clear: I can’t remember hearing a better performance of this work live. Jackiw would appear to have it all – a commanding technique, taste, intelligence and, best of all, real feeling. He unwound the thing lyrically, taking his time and listening to the line to make sure it made sense and flowed in a dramatic narrative. It was like a great speech, a listener hanging on every word. Remember this kid’s name.

Pletnev supported him quietly and calmly, his baton sometimes barely stirring the air, but it worked. He opened the concert with a similarly understated account of the Elegy from Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3, beautifully played but maybe not the most cheerful way to get things going.

He had some fun at the end, though, with two encores. They were Pletnev’s own compositions, the “Burlesque” and Finale from his Jazz Suite, whacky and witty escapades that gradually get a little out of control, as in an extended virtuosic solo for the contrabassoon. After all the deadpan, Pletnev left us with a wry smile.