It might seem strange for a chamber orchestra to call themselves virtuosi, but not in the case of the Moscow Virtuosi, who performed Thursday at the Chan Centre. They are most definitely virtuosic in the business of subtlety, unanimity and style. They have the flock intelligence of a flight of birds, tilting their wings as one.
The group of 25 or so musicians, curiously almost all male, was formed in 1979 by their leader Vladimir Spivakov (affectionately known as Spiva) after he made his conducting debut with the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival. Every musician is either a soloist or the first deskman of a great Russian orchestra. To hear them play is to hear the purest of sounds imaginable and a rare honour. The concert was part of a tour throughout the world in commemoration of the orchestra's 30th anniversary.
We heard one of their touring programs, which they'll repeat God knows how many times in the weeks to come. And no, not one note of it sounded tired, bored or overplayed, because this is what professionalism is all about. It all sounded fresh as paint.
Spivakov, incidentally a humanitarian who takes on very worthy causes, is not only a great conductor but one of Russia's best violinists. He was the soloist in one of Vivaldi's 230 or so violin concertos (or, as a cynic said, the one concerto that he wrote 230 times). I don't recall hearing this E-minor concerto before and I don't recall hearing Vivaldi played with such bubbling joyful energy or such throwaway elegance.
They also played an unfamiliar work by Rossini and another one by Boccherini. It wasn't a routine program by any means. The music was good, untarnished by overuse and played with absolutely breathtaking panache. You just never hear such playing: sudden decelerandos without a hair of disagreement, such daring tempos, such uncanny precision. Spivakov, conducting, was a study in pure grace and minimal effort. Music just flowed out of that small, elegantly suited body.
The last work, at least the last one according to the program, was Russian, finally: Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, which is long for a serenade but not that long. What could such a short second half mean? You probably know.
The Serenade is one of the most delectable scores that Tchaikovsky ever wrote, something that he said he felt from start to finish. It's pure summer music, unforgettably elegiac, a model of string writing that inspired many people, surely among them being Anton Arensky in his undyingly beautiful Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky.
The reason why the second half looked so short was that they had to allow time for the encores. There were lots of them, about five or six, two of them Piazzolla tangos played with a young accordionist that Spivakov had taken under his wing. He was sensational.
But even the encores were model. They had less to do with cynical calculation than with fact: the musicians know they're good and they knew people would love them and the packed house did and with reason. Words fail to describe the virtuosity of the Moscow Virtuosi.
This review ran May 9 on www.vancouversun.com