After 27 years of conducting the same orchestra, it would seem that a casual flip of the wrist is all Yevgeny Svetlanov needs to fire the members of the U.S.S.R. State Symphony Orchestra into action. Certainly that's all he offered them at the opening of Glinka's "Russlan and Ludmila" Overture, the first work in the matinee performance at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Sunday. Judging by the musical fireworks that ensued, anything more than these economical gestures might have incited a riot.
Svetlanov is not a conductor to waste energy in unnecessary arm-flailing. Yes, he'll shake his fist repeatedly with the implicit message that he needs even more volume, he'll even stand on his toes to indicate the end of an ear-shattering crescendo, but what really impresses one about this conductor is that he gains so much while saying so little.
Svetlanov could have taken the tempi down a notch or two and still have turned in a very good "Russlan," but why spoil the fun when you can charge this war horse at break-neck speed (without sacrificing clarity), show off a first-rate orchestra and rivet an audience to its seats all at the same time?
But it's craftsmanship and not showmanship that has secured Svetlanov's tenure as a great conductor, and we may safely assume that, after a quarter-century, the U.S.S.R. State Symphony Orchestra's strengths and aspirations are closely allied to his. What is harder to do is to pinpoint his, and therefore the orchestra's, weaknesses.
There were moments in Prokofiev's Symphony No. 7 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131, when woodwind figures could have been drawn tighter, but these were outweighed by instrumental colorations that were nothing short of magnificent. Tones in the Andante Espressivo were soft and subtle and the powerful fortissimo close of the Vivace electrifying. Seldom do musicians give more of themselves than the string section did for Svetlanov in page after page of bow-rattling tremolandi.
The so-called "Polish" Symphony of Tchaikovsky, No. 3 in D, Op. 29, was served with sensitivity and brio in equal measure -- disciplined playing marking the contrasting movements with purpose as well as passion. Kennedy Center audiences might enjoy any number of performances of this work by any number of fine conductors and orchestras. But the zeal Svetlanov and the State Symphony imprinted on the music was downright inimitable.