Saturday, March 10, 2007

Concertos, Concertos

Cellist Ani Aznavoorian provided most of the thrills at Saturday’s Colorado Springs Philharmonic concert.

Aznavoorian showed off her incredibly expressive musicianship in Brahms’ Double Concerto For Violin and Cello, in which she was joined by violinist Stefan Milenkovich, and in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto For Violin, Cello and Piano, in which she was joined by Milenkovich and pianist/conductor Lawrence Leighton Smith.

The orchestra also got a chance to show off on its own, with a sparkling performance of Richard Strauss’ virtuosic roller-coaster ride, “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks.”

If anything, Aznavoorian has improved since her 2004 appearance with the philharmonic. She has energy to burn, a warm sound, phrasing that always sings, and seemingly no physical limitations. She grabbed the crowd’s attention in her first solo, which began as a continuation of the orchestra’s dramatic opening and transformed the mood into hushed tenderness.

She somewhat overshadowed Milenkovich, who phrases intelligently, has a pure, open sound in quiet passages — he was wonderful in the Brahms’ prayerful second movement — but has a much less pronounced musical personality and sometimes forces his tone.

Though Aznavoorian and Milenkovich sounded completely different when playing separately, they had an amazing rapport when playing together.

The first movement of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto may be the blandest large-scale piece the mature Beethoven ever wrote. But the short second movement is a gem — especially when played with the intensity Aznavoorian brought to it — and the quasi-Polish finale is delightful.

Smith’s decision to conduct Beethoven’s concerto from the keyboard resulted in a a few white-knuckle moments between the orchestra and the soloists. But each movement got better, and the finale brought the concert to a brilliant and satisfying conclusion.

It was in the finale that Milenkovich gave his most spirited playing of the evening. Smith also performed this movement with the intelligence and passion that he brings to his conducting.

Though the orchestra was often in the background in the concertos, it more than got its say in the curtain-raiser: Strauss’ witty, sparkling “Till Eulenspeigel.” The piece is based on the adventures of trickster from German folklore — and though it’s not necessary to know the story, it’s important to know that there is a story. Otherwise, many of the sudden changes of color, mood, volume and tempo are inexplicable

This was another performance that showed how far the orchestra has come. Simple competence is difficult enough in this orchestral showpiece; but this performance was also spirited, exuberant, and just plain fun. The orchestral tone was bright, focused and occasionally very, very loud.

Colorado Springs Philharmonic with Ani Aznavoorian, cello, and Stefan Milenkovich, violin
When: 2:30 p.m. today
Where: Pikes Peak Center, 190 S. Cascade Ave.
Tickets: $12-$50; 520-7469 or


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