It was good to be back at Grace Episcopal Church for the Intermezzi Series opener after a hiatus of several years. There’s something special about the rosy glow that the fine old edifice’s acoustic imparts to a chamber orchestra’s sound. The church’s only drawback as a performance venue is that a pretty fair percentage of the audience has to sit along the side aisles, with fat columns often limiting their view of the performing action. Regular Intermezzi attendees soon learn to arrive early if they want to be sure of getting the choicest seats.
The first of the three works offered was the world premiere of Wind Moving Colors in the Air, a dandy single-movement suite drawn from the opera Paradises Lost: a recent work by contemporary composer Stephen Andrew Taylor. The opera spins a tale of space exploration and the colonization of a newly discovered planet, based on a novella by Ursula K. Le Guin. The rich and colorful music, unfolding in long-breathed lines over sustained rhythmic patterns, mostly evokes the apparently pastoral quality of life on this strange new world. The young Russian conductor Sergei Pavlov led his marvelous minions from the Spoleto Festival Orchestra with confident authority. His rather quirky, yet precise conducting style — with meticulous cueing and an unusual method of beating time (with his baton arm slashing upward and left arm dropping low), left no doubt in his players’ minds as to exactly what he wanted from them — and he almost always got just that.
Then, after a brief pause to allow all but the strings players to depart the stage, Pavlov returned with violin soloist Yun-Ting Lee for a glowing and sensual go at Argentinian tango master Astor Piazzola’s well-known The Four seasons of Buenos Aires, an Argentinian homage to Vivaldi’s popular cycle of concertos. The version heard here is an arrangement by Leonid Desyatnikov. Beginning with the rich and sultry summer section, the four- movement suite progresses through each time of year with seasonally evocative music studded with spicy and appealing violin solos that reflect Vivaldi’s penchant for flashy fiddle work. There are even a few mismatched musical quotes from Vivaldi’s music. For example, we heard snippets of his “winter” concerto in Piazzola’s “summer” music, reminding us that the seasons as we know them are reversed in South America. But the music never loses its predominant and idiomatically true sense of dance. Again, Pavlov led a most effective and cohesive performance, demonstrating his sure knack for the Latin American idiom. Soloist Lee played with brilliance and saucy flair.
You’d have to be a rock not to love P.I. Tchaikovsky’s lush and lovely Serenade for Strings. It’s one of several works that the composer modeled after the form and sweet style of his idol Mozart. But his thematic material here — sometimes distinctly Russian in nature — is entirely his own, unlike that of his equally revered “Mozartiana” suite that employes some of the master’s more obscure melodies. Despite a touch or two of melancholy, the work contains almost none of the typically Russian angst and despair that we find in his symphonies.
Pavlov’s reading of the piece left nothing to be desired. Right from the start, he passed up no opportunity to coax glowing gushes of throbbing string sound from his gifted players. In the second movement’s limpid and lilting waltz, the ensemble reminded us of Tchaikovsky’s mastery of the dance-forms that suffuse his cherished ballet scores. The Elegie movement’s spirit of soft sadness and yearning was nicely amplified, though not overdone. The finale’s more manic and rolling course brought this sleek and gleaming work to a rousing close and the happy crowd to its collective feet in an appreciative standing O. Music for strings just doesn’t get any better than this.