Review: National Symphony of Ukraine

Volodymyr Sirenko conducting
with Volodymyr Vynnytsky, piano
Feb. 7, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

In the last century, most of the orchestras of the former Soviet Union had a standard sonic profile: big and brawny, with rather stark sonorities and a tendency toward extremes of sentimentality or militant fervor. Times and sounds change, and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, currently on tour in the US, is representative of those changes.

The orchestra retains some of the old-style tonal mass, principally in its brass section, but produces more varieties of tone color and plays with finer articulation and greater transparency in its rendering of details of orchestration.

Those qualities came through in a program, presented by the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center at the downtown Carpenter Theatre, of contrasting works from Slavic symphonic repertory: Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, bracketed by Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in D minor and the “First Ukrainian Symphony” in C major of the 18th-century composer Maksim Sozontovich Berezovsky.

In the Dvořák, the orchestra’s longtime conductor, Volodymyr Sirenko, set broad tempos that allowed the work’s lyrical qualities to bloom and clarified exchanges among string sections and woodwinds. String sound was noticeably warmer than in typical performances of this symphony, and wind solos were unusually characterful – at times bordering on pastoral. This interpretation took some of the edge off the Dvořák Seventh, softening its contrasts of the darkly dramatic and the lyrical.

The Tchaikovsky concerto, featuring pianist Volodymyr Vynnytsky, was paced slowly in the first two movements, giving the already prominent piano an even more commanding role. Vynnytsky played quite percussively, accentuating heavy chords and making Tchaikovsky’s glittering piano filagree into the sound equivalent of ice crystals.

The Steinway he was playing did not take kindly to this approach, sounding glassy and very harsh at high volume. Its tone was less grating in the finale of the concerto, taken at a more conventional brisk tempo, at which the blend of piano and orchestral sound improved.

The Berezovsky symphony – a surprise, as a different piece was listed in advance notice of the program – proved, despite its title, to be a pretty generic example of rococo style, not unlike contemporaneous works of the young Joseph Haydn or the Mannheim school of composers. The orchestra played it stylishly, although with the heft of a band far larger than those of the mid-18th century.

The National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, with pianist Volodymyr Vynnytsky, plays works by Brahms, Saint-Saëns and Dmytro Bortnyansky at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 21 at Moss Arts Center of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Tickets: $40-$75. Details: (540) 231-5300; http://artscenter.vt.edu The orchestra, with cellist Yevhen Stankovych, plays works by Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Schubert at 8 p.m. Feb. 22 at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax. Tickets: $36-$60. Details: (888) 945-2468 (Tickets.com); http://cfa.gmu.edu

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