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Moscow Virtuosi in Toronto

The Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra was in Toronto on Friday evening, presenting a nearly sold-out concert at Roy Thomson Hall. And on the podium was Vladimir Spivakov, who has led the orchestra since 1979.

From the first downbeat of Mozart’s Divertimento in F Major, Spivakov and his Virtuosi displayed the kind of playing that’s made them famous: perfectly balanced, dynamically expressive, with a warm swell in the phrasing, and a finish that’s as smooth as silk.


After the lively charms of Mozart came a full and lush reading of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in G Major. Particularly impressive in the Tchaikovsky was the detailed attention that Spivakov and his players lavished on inner voices, enriching textures.


By combining some shorter movements by Shostakovich – the Two Pieces for String Octet Op. 11 (arranged for string orchestra) and Two Pieces for String Orchestra – the Virtuosi created a striking and cohesive larger work. In some passages, they put a sharp edge on their tone, enhancing the ironic and grotesque aspects of this music. At other times, a restrained transparency reflected the bleak and bitter qualities in the score.
The program concluded with Astor Piazzolla’s History of The Tango. Here, the playing was elegant and infused with a gravitas that served to remind that the tango is both joyful and serious at the same time. A different violin soloist was featured in each of the four movements. While I wouldn’t say they were all equally simpatico with the suave composure of tango style, they all brought mastery to their solos.

I’d heard Moscow Virtuosi before – and I was expecting nothing less than a superb performance. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was a political aspect to the orchestra’s appearance in Toronto.

But because Spivakov recently signed a public letter in support of Vladimir Putin’s policies vis-à-vis the current unrest in Ukraine, a noisy group of demonstrators waving Ukranian flags staged a protest outside the hall. Angry words were exchanged between people arriving for the concert (many of whom came from Toronto’s Russian community), and the protestors urging a boycott of the event.

There’s nothing wrong with a demonstration outside a concert – Canada is a free country – but when someone unfurled a banner inside the hall accusing Spivakov of supporting Putin, a line was crossed. A shoving match ensued in the balcony, which might have turned tragic if someone fell over the edge, before ushers could intervene.

The incident took place right in front of Spivakov during the Tchaikovsky, but the conductor didn’t miss a beat.

© Colin Eatock 2014