Music review: Vladimir Spivakov and Moscow Virtuosi at the Saban Theatre

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Vladimir Spivakov’s Moscow Virtuosi has been around for more than 30 years; it remains a top-flight chamber orchestra with a large repertoire that reaches into idioms where touring bands still fear to tread. These Muscovites regularly play in the world’s flagship halls -– and will in such cities as San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Toronto and New York on their North American tour this month.

In Los Angeles, though, the Moscow Virtuosi set up shop in the somewhat-out-of-the-way Saban Theatre (formerly the Wilshire Theatre), a onetime movie palace with acceptable yet noticeably distant acoustics on the orchestra floor. The Saban happens to be close to the city’s Russian community -– and in the lobby and on the sidewalk outside the hall, all conversations overheard were in Russian.

Spivakov and company chased through Boccherini’s ‘La Casa del Diavolo’ with hardly a pause between movements, streamlined yet expressive with no attempts at period-performance anything. They took on Mozart’s grand-scaled Piano Concerto No. 9 in similar lively, direct style, with pianist Alexander Ghindin exercising a bright, bold, clear-as-a-bell touch. The rhythmically hand-clapping crowd prompted Ghindin to dash off a flamboyant fantasia on Rossini’s ‘Largo al factotum’ and a jazzed-up Mozart ‘Turkish March.’

The audience seemed a bit uneasy about the next brave choice, Alfred Schnittke’s Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Chamber Orchestra, in which the composer’s bracing polystylism –- now angry, now flippant, now meditative –- ran wild and free, with the harpsichord often used as a dissonant percussion instrument. Spivakov expertly provided the violin solos himself, sacrificing some lustrous tone quality for spiky vigor and sarcasm, which was well worth the trade in this piece. Spivakov then offered some string-orchestra transcriptions of works by the young, cheeky Shostakovich, hammering home the point that Schnittke was Shostakovich’s spiritual heir. First came the Two Pieces For String Octet –- its brutal, forward-looking scherzo played with terrific drive –- and then the Elegy and Polka for String Quartet, the Polka being the familiar joke-strewn number from ‘The Golden Age.’


The ensemble finished the night by peeling off one tiny, beautifully-played encore after another by Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Brahms and Piazzolla as the boisterous hand-clapping grew louder.

-– Richard S. Ginell

Vladimir Spivakov and the members of the orchestra. Credit: Moscow Virtuosi