The pitfall of virtuosity is slickness, which conductor Vladimir Spivakov and his Moscow Virtuosi did not wholly avoid in concerts during the weekend in Los Angeles and Costa Mesa.
What is the point of such brilliant precision and polished elegance if Mozart's Symphony No. 29, played for some reason without pause between movements Friday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, emerges so streamlined and bland? Or if Tchaikovsky's dramatic Serenade for Strings, played on the same concert with the same ensemble qualities, sounds like mere salon music?
Spivakov seemed content to set tempos, beat time with swooping gestures and stay on the surface of this music.
Fortunately, he found more of the variety in style, form and character that Tchaikovsky put in "The Children's Album," a collection of 24 miniatures, Saturday in a program sponsored by the Philharmonic Society at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. Spivakov and Vladimir Milman orchestrated the piano original.
But in Haydn's "Farewell" Symphony, also on Saturday, despite the lovely reenactment of the premiere at which the musicians blew out their candles and walked off stage, Spivakov was back to an approach so refined and genteel that the conflict in the music turned pale.
Common to both programs were two pieces: Arvo Part's "Fratres," arranged for violin, strings and percussion; and Shostakovich's Concertino, arranged for piano and strings by soloist Julia Zilberquit.
Spivakov was a powered and sweet-toned soloist in "Fratres," but the performance of this early example of what is now called "Holy Minimalism" lacked even a smidgen of religious feeling. Zilberquit was a forceful and rhapsodic soloist in the Concertino, but her arrangement and cadenza made the work sound closer to Rachmaninoff than Shostakovich.
Some of the most impressive ensemble work came in the encores. Los Angeles heard three; Costa Mesa, four. In L.A., these were an early Mozart Allegro, Tchaikovsky's "Neapolitan Song" and a dance from Falla's "El Amor Brujo." Costa Mesa got the same three and a ravishing Haydn Adagio, with soloist Spivakov at his most sensitive.