Violinist Simonyan makes impressive debut at Grant Park Music Festival

Thu Jul 19, 2012 at 2:12 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Mikhail Simonyan performed Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto Wednesday night with the Grant Park Orchestra.

Summer programs of Russian music invariably serve up the usual Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff  chestnuts, the better to maximize box office returns.

Not so the Grant Park Music Festival, which can always be counted on to take the repertorial path less trodden. Rachmaninoff was indeed on the program Wednesday night at the Pritzker Pavilion but with a late, infrequently heard work alongside a once-popular Russian violin concerto that has receded to the status of concert hall rarity.

The main news Wednesday was violinist Mikhail Simonyan who was making his festival debut. The young Russian-born musician is the real thing, as shown in his distinctive, revisionist take on Aram Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto, a work featured on his recently released debut recording with Deutsche Grammophon.

On the rare occasions when one hears the Khachaturian Violin Concerto these days, it is played as a full-out show-stopper with big glitzy sound, heavy on volume and as much souped-up speed as one can muster.

Simonyan took an entirely different, almost counterintuitive approach. The soloist tackled the composer’s insistent rhythms with gleaming, silvery tone and lightly sprung articulation that seemed almost Mozartian at times. The violinist’s elegant style conveyed the yearning expression of the opening movement’s second theme with a tasteful, non-gelatinous vibrato that avoided special pleading. The fireworks of the celebrated finale with its skipping main theme were thrown off with faultless articulation and an exciting yet understated bravura that downplayed the repetitive banality. Indeed, Simonyan’s playful, lightly improvisatory style seemed almost to wink at the music, as if to say, “Okay, it’s not a masterpiece, but let’s just have fun.”

I’d be guessing what an authentic approach is in this music, but Simonyan — whose father is Armenian — seemed to find a striking degree of idiomatic depth in the lyrical moments. His first-movement cadenza was played with simplicity and a musing, fantasy-like style that seemed just right. And Simonyan was at his finest in the central Andante, bringing out the folk flavor with a refined intimacy and seamless legato. Simonyan returned for a solo encore of what he called the Armenian Prayer, rendered with silken tone and an ardent vein of feelng.

Conductor Rossen Milanov was a worthy collaborator in the concerto, providing alert and rhythmically clear support from the Grant Park Orchestra, though the final movement could have used playing of greater thrust and impact.

Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances was the Russian composer’s final opus. The three-movement work was initially regarded as evidence of the composer’s fading creative powers, but, far from that, Rachmaninoff was honing and tightening his music, moving from lush Late Romanticism to a tauter, leaner style while experimenting with new orchestral timbres.

Milanov—music director of the Chicago Youth Symphony from 1997-2001 and currently music director of the New Symphony Orchestra in his native Bulgaria—was a mostly admirable guide in this late work. As in the concerto, Milanov elicited transparent textures and rhythmic acuity with a natural ebb and flow.

Yet there is greater depth and darkness in this music than was evident Wednesday night. The opening movement’s saxophone solo proved decidedly prosaic, and the Bulgarian conductor’s direction fitfully lacked an essential drive and intensity. The final movement can seem sequential if not held firmly together and such was the case here with Milanov’s spaciously drawn out lyrical passages sacrificing forward momentum and making the music feel episodic.

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