shots: the Capuçon brothers.
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 4
For 26 years I have assiduously avoided the Philadelphia Orchestra’s
annual “Tchaikovsky Spectacular” at the Saratoga Performing
Arts Center. When I was a teenager, Tchaikovsky’s music was
like a candy I consumed at such a rate that it induced musical
diabetes. I couldn’t get enough of the “Pathéthique.” I OD’d
on the “Tonight We Love” concerto. I reached a point where
I stopped listening to his music altogether, hoping this insulin-like
insularity would allow the gloomy Russian’s music back into
Two pieces escaped my boycott: the Violin Concerto
and the Rococo Variations. And both pieces were on
last Friday’s program, with the dynamic Capuçon brothers—Renaud
Capuçon, violinist, and Gautier Capuçon, cellist—making their
debuts as soloists with the orchestra.
Opening with the Marche Slav is a good idea in terms
of programming. It’s Tchaikovsky at his most bombastic, throbbing
with patriotism and melancholy. And it foreshadowed the concert’s
closer, the mighty 1812. But as the horns and tympani
kicked into gear, as the strings wailed and the flute sounded
a shrill obbligato above, I couldn’t help but hear again every
maddening moment that had turned me off at about the same
time that the composing career of John Williams was inspired.
But something happened onstage beyond such superficialities.
Conductor Charles Dutoit led the orchestra through an effortless-sounding
crescendo, a moment of great musical sensitivity, the kind
of moment that concertgoing is all about. The kind of moment
you can’t hear when the car audio’s Automatic Level Control
By the time the Violin Concerto commenced, I was back
in the candy store, feeling gluttonous. Sometimes the excitement
of a soloist’s debut is found only in retrospect, after others
have showered kudos. But this kid tore up the fiddle with
such aplomb that we all knew right then we were witnessing
Renaud Capuçon brought unique touches to this too-familiar
piece. He played the opening way up on the lower strings,
giving a guttier sound to the melody. He eschewed the cuts
and fancifications other violinists have added over the years,
proving that the piece as published remains effective.
This is a piece that sends the soloist soaring up and down
the fingerboard in rapid scales and arpeggios. There’s no
room for error, and Renaud showed none. If anything, he came
out of the cadenza with too much energy, rushing a bit as
he rejoined the orchestra, but finding the right balance once
again—a tribute both to his playing and Dutoit’s always impressive
hand as an accompanying partner.
The slow movement calls for the soloist to mute the violin,
which requires an even more sensitive pairing with orchestra,
which often and easily threatens to overwhelm the fiddle.
No such problem here. And the full-voiced finale is all pyrotechnics
and filigree, played with such dash that it practically sucked
the audience out of its seats.
Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello
and orchestra hasn’t nearly the flash of the Violin Concerto,
but it soars with its own charm and sneaks in plenty of virtuoso
demands. Gautier Capuçon energetically—almost recklessly—nailed
his entrances early with a voice that said “I’m in command.”
But he always was a sympathetic partner with the orchestra,
trading glances with concertmaster David Kim as soloist and
strings shaped their back-and-forth phrases. It was another
The closer, of course, was the 1812 Overture, a piece
that reveals its mysteries the first couple of times you hear
it and then behaves like an annoying dog, whining and nudging
and otherwise demanding your attention. Which it finally does,
in the most over-the-top act of musical desperation, with
cannon and bells, both of which were not-terribly-effective
pre-records at this performance.
But the orchestra was never short of excellent, playing with
the conviction of newcomers to the piece, finding joy in this
too-familiar score, and, when you come right down to it, pleasing
the hell even out of a grump like me.