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CityMusic Cleveland at St. Stanislaus
J.D. Goddard, clevelandclassical.com, December 10, 2010

On Friday evening, Dec. 10th, I attended a performance by the twenty-four strings of CityMusic Cleveland at the Shrine Church of Saint Stanislaus conducted by Joel Smirnoff. The program featured Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with Kyung Sun Lee, and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C for Strings.

I arrived one hour early to watch and listen as CityMusic members went through the always ritualistic paces of warming up and adjusting to the wonderful acoustics of this magnificent venue. The “warm-up” process prior to a concert can be very revealing and in many instances I would rather pay to see the warm-up/dress rehearsal instead of the actual performance of a group.

I was at once struck by the fact that all were enjoying playing off of each others’ abundant musical talents and concentrating intently on the perfection of their well honed skills. Smiles were abundant and the jovial give and take between strings, soloist and conductor were a thing at which one could only marvel. Conductor Smirnoff set the tone for the performance to come by literally dancing on the podium while gleefully throwing out clear, concise and poignant gestures accompanied by flamboyant facial expressions appropriate to the musical style of the moment. Everyone was having fun and the performance had not yet even begun.

City Music is an orchestra made up of young, bold and extremely talented musicians. As Smirnoff stated, “each is an accomplished soloist in their own right and it is such fun to merely flick a wrist and they follow.” At the same time it was very obvious that the musicians had a great deal of respect for Smirnoff’s authority and prowess as a conductor. They followed his every movement and visual expression.

Violin soloist Kyung Sun Lee walked to the stage for the Vivaldi exuding the confidence of a seasoned veteran and played with exceptional style and poise. The opening Allegro of Spring was filled with sprightly brilliance, sweeping legatos and extremely well conducted transitions and cadences. The precision of entrances and cutoffs was remarkable. The Largo was the epitome of hushed eloquence and gentle tranquility: Kyung Sun Lee took full advantage of her ability to so gently phrase this magnificently eloquent movement. It was refreshing to see the strings using just the tip of the bow for the pianissimo sections and to hear their clear and gentle accompaniment. The Allegro was very stately and filled with the exuberant dynamic contrasts so often utilized in the Baroque Era. Ms. Lee played with flair.

In Summer, heat sets in and the soloist is called upon for an array of imitations: cuckoos, turtledove, breezes and rushing winds. The Adagio e piano blends a delicate chromatic solo line with orchestral tremors that could be construed as a change in the weather. Ms. Lee finishes the final movement, Presto e forte Presto, with its summer storm of lightning, thunder and warm rain, with the flash and flair opulence so prevalent in the Baroque Era.

Autumn is filled with dynamic contrasts and Lee played with extraordinary boldness, virtually pulling out all of the stops. The Adagio molto was the highlight of the concert with its incredible quadruple pianissimo beginning. It was nearly indiscernible to the human ear yet every one knew that it was there. Then the music faded into obscurity with a hushed silence throughout the audience. In the Allegro, Smirnoff literally let his head and face do the conducting, bouncing with the fun of the interpretation. Lee followed Smirnoff’s lead and exhibited her own style of fun. Here were two artists working together and performing within each other’s style. It all ended with a wonderful crispness and clarity.

Winter is a portrayal of ice, snow and freezing cold but has a silvery beauty nonetheless. Lee attacked this movement with fingers flying and bow almost racing off of the strings. She was very precise and the orchestra strings joined her in the drama, chopping strong beats with precision and clarity. The Largo showcases the strings in a very fine pizzicato imitating the popping and cracking of logs burning in a fireplace. Here, Smirnoff moved the baton to his left hand and conducted only with gentle wrist movements of his right. Once again, Lee was stunning in her interpretation and understanding of the style. The final movement ended Vivaldi’s Seasons with the power and strength of all the strings and the strong and confident bowings of Ms. Lee.

After the intermission the CityMusic strings returned to tackle one of the most challenging Romantic string works in the repertoire, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C. Tchaikovsky was obviously a Romantic but his idol was Mozart. In September of 1880 he decided to write an orchestral serenade, stating “This is my homage to Mozart and it is intended to be an imitation of his style.”

After playing Vivaldi, the musicians were now suddenly thrust into the realm of lush, long dramatic lines demanding strong vibratos, lengthy crescendos and decrescendos and heavy bowings full of intensity, a daunting task for any group of string players. This shift in style took City Music a few minutes to accomplish, but from there on the Romantic style kicked in even though the score actually calls for a much larger group of strings to create the lushness Tchaikovsky desires. There was an abundance of echoing back and forth between upper and lower strings, each beautifully contributing to the drama. During the 16th runs, heads and hands were flying. The ending to this movement was exceptionally well thought out and precisely and dramatically brought to fruition through Smirnoff’s clear and adroit conducting.

The “Valse” movement (probably everybody’s favorite) possessed some of the finest rubatos and ritardandos of the evening. Smirnoff wrung every ounce of Romanticism out of these fine young musicians and you could tell that they loved every minute of it. Many of the phrases were so wonderfully shaped that their concluding cadences left the audience hanging with anticipation for the final cutoff. The “Valse” ended with a beautiful, almost mystical finish, fading gently and quietly into oblivion.