Photograph of Chamber Orchestra Kremlin

GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — Close Encounters with Music, under the direction of cellist Yehuda Hanani, began its 19th season in the Berkshires at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington Saturday evening with a tour de force a seventeen-member ensemble from Moscow, Russia, called the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin. The largest chamber group CEM has ever presented, this was a leap of faith that paid off in a stunning performance by this talented ensemble of young professionals. The most unusual and intriguing music of the evening came with a set of very short piano pieces by Sergei Prokofiev and arranged for string orchestra by Rudolf Barshai entitled Visions Fugitives, Op. 22. Fifteen distinct and separate wonderful vignettes danced, floated, and skittered while producing chromatic and sometimes very dissonant harmonies. Just about every player in the ensemble seemed to be a virtuosic soloist,which made up for some of the slightly off ensemble playing in the violins during the most difficult passages.

The most poignant performance came during Kol Nidrei by Max Bruch, with Yehuda Hanani as the solo cellist. In this solemn music that uses Hebrew melodies, Hanani’s performance was flawless and extremely sensitive, with beautifully shaped phrasing and a helping gesture to the ensemble as it continued his phrases. Cellist and strings blended as with one voice.

Hanani was also soloist in Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile, an arrangement of his first string quartet for cellist and string orchestra. Although this piece is a cellist’s dream, the orchestral part was mainly accompanimental, although played very well.

The most symphonic work of the evening was Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, filled with flowing melodies and short motifs that bounce around among the players. Listening to these lines, especially in the Valse movement, one could sense flying through the melodious air accompanied by angels playing stringed instruments, in a kind of whimsical Chagall painting of Russian village life. The Chamber Orchestra Kremlin shone in this piece.

One caveat: instead of the light and chittering Sonata in C Major by twelve-year-old Gioacchino Rossini played at the beginning of the concert, music director Misha Rachlevsky would be better advised to program a new work, perhaps one of the thirty the group has commissioned, or one by a young Russian composer. This concert needs a fresh sound unknown to an American audience to go with the more familiar fare offered, and to round out an otherwise happy and exciting evening.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS WITH MUSIC

Close Encounters With Music stands at the intersection of music, art and the vast richness of Western culture. Entertaining, erudite and lively commentary from founder and Artistic Director Yehuda Hanani puts the composers and their times in perspective to enrich the concert experience. Since the inception of its Commissioning Project in 2001, CEWM has worked with the most distinguished composers of our time—Paul Schoenfield, Osvaldo Golijov, Lera Auerbach, Kenji Bunch, John Musto, among others—to create important new works that have already taken their place in the chamber music canon and on CD. A core of brilliant performers includes pianists James Tocco, Adam Neiman, Walter Ponce and William Wolfram; violinists Shmuel Ashkenasi, Yehonatan Berick, Vadim Gluzman and Toby Appel; harpsichordist Lionel Party; clarinetists Alexander Fiterstein, Charles Neidich; vocalists Dawn Upshaw, Amy Burton, Jennifer Aylmer, Robert White, Lucille Beer and William Sharp; the Vermeer, Amernet, Muir, Manhattan, Avalon, Hugo Wolf quartets, and Cuarteto Latinoamericano; and guitarist Eliot Fisk. Choreographer David Parsons and actors Richard Chamberlain, Jane Alexander and Sigourney Weaver have also appeared as guests, weaving narration and dance into the fabric of the programs.