Washington is a great music town. But all it takes is a visit from the Kirov Orchestra to remind us what our local musicmaking has in such short supply. Call it unbridled passion. Call it elemental force.

Call it Valery Gergiev. The Russian firebrand conducted a concert of Tchaikovsky and Bruch war horses with the Kirov on Tuesday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The orchestra's characteristic brawn, its galvanic strength, was there in spades throughout Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" Overture and his Fifth Symphony. But the hypnotic power of these performances had less to do with jolts of sheer volume or adrenaline-fueled tempos -- though there were plenty of both on hand -- than with Gergiev's way of making the music take on an almost corporeal presence. Instrumental lines surged and receded like the coursing of blood. At moments of maximum harmonic tension, one could almost hear muscles and sinews stretching to their breaking point. And when one of Tchaikovsky's soaring melodies was released, the orchestra wouldn't merely sing it, but seemed to exhale it from a deep and troubled place.

Yet beyond Gergiev's skill at finding the primal pulse of the music, his subtle sense of color and his ability to shape a score can be revelatory. He's second to none at blending inner voices -- at making, say, a woodwind line emerge almost imperceptibly from a string figuration. And while "Romeo and Juliet" was tremendously exciting, it was also beautifully rounded in tone, with burnished brass, plaintive winds and a sheen on the strings that seemed to give off pure white light. The symphony was, if anything, even more beautiful -- not least in the ravishingly played horn solo in the slow movement -- and was conceived as a single musical thought that held to its seamless, inevitable trajectory across the divisions between movements.

Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 featured the terrific young soloist Nikolaj Znaider. His sound, though decidedly small-scale, was gorgeous. Intonation and technique were exemplary, and his phrasing -- supple, tender and with a Gypsy element touched in lightly around the edges -- possessed an imperial poise. Gergiev was a model of sensitivity and support to Znaider, but opened up to full throttle during the purely orchestral interludes to reveal a churning, Beethovian power in Bruch's writing.

-- Joe Banno