VSO's 'Winter Dreams' full of beautifully played, musical warmth

Given the recent chill in temperatures, the Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s program Friday, in the Ferguson Center, “Winter Dreams,” seemed well placed. And while the theme was meant to reflect the winter season, the works ended up bathing us in musical warmth and inviting sounds.

The most theme-friendly work came with the opening “Winter” from Glazunov’s “The Seasons,” a colorful work of joy. As designed, it musically depicts four elements of winter: frost, ice, hail and snow. Under the baton of conductor JoAnn Falletta, the performance was appropriately light, delicate and playful, with the last orchestral sounds creating images of swirling snow, delicately wrapping up things quite nicely.

The evening’s solo spotlight was on celebrated guest cellist, 27-year-old Julian Schwarz, an obviously young artist of obviously considerable talent. Not that talent is passed down through families, but it does make one inclined to think there’s something to that since his father is the celebrated conductor-musician-composer Gerard Schwarz. While reportedly a fan of new music, his selections here were Tchaikovsky’s romantic and ever-familiar “Variations on a Rococo Theme” and Faure’s also familiar “Elegy for Violoncello and Orchestra.”

A showpiece for the cello, “Rococo” it is filled with flair, lyricism and lots of virtuoso passages. Schwarz, sitting on an elevated platform, was front and center as he expertly surveyed the work’s many lines of development. From devilishly demanding finger gymnastics to heightened moments of expression, many of them of a hear-a-pin-drop quietness, Schwarz’s superb performance was mighty and engaging. His love of the instrument — a 1743 Gagliano — and playing were obvious throughout the Tchaikovsky, smiles crossing his face in particularly playful moments and determined seriousness in those more thoughtful.

This was again heard in Faure’s lyrical “Elegy.” Not flashy, save a brief flourish, “Elegy” is a non-stop flow of lyrical and expressive lines. Schwarz embraced the gentleness of the bitter-sweet piece, his rich sound relaying the romantic work’s reflective nature. In both selections, Falletta brought sensitive and supportive orchestral accompaniment that added style to the musical moments.

Sibelius’ symphonies are among the most stirring in orchestral literature. They tend to be romantic, richly harmonic, powerful, and majestic, even, monumental. Such is his Symphony No. 5 that suggests a snowy Finnish landscape, post-glacial terrain, granite rock formations and massive forests. It‘s a work with layers of varied lines, ranging from delicacy and a certain sweetness to those of truly lasting auditory memory with dramatic, sweeping statements of brass bell sounds mixed with lyrical winds and passionate string passages. The performance was powerful, its climax truly that — a wow moment.

Originally, I wasn’t sure why Falletta chose to follow the stirring Sibelius with what seemed like an encore piece but there it was. Certainly the grand pas de deux from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” is flowing, lovely, and poetically appealing. And thusly was it played here, Tchaikovsky‘s emotions on full display.

Prior to that, Falletta explained that December holds exciting times for us with such events as Christmas, Hanukkah, New Years, and lots of VSO holiday programs instilling good feelings. And, so, she felt this very brief “Nutcracker” excerpt was a good way to get the season of goodwill and music started.

Following her sincere remarks, the encore aspect somewhat fell aside, the selection’s beauty and drama taking over. Still, the Sibelius and its powerhouse, knock-your-socks-off close — tough to top that.

Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has been covering the arts for over 40 years. He makes a guest appearance in Margaret Truman's "Murder at the Opera."

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