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Russian master expertly handled

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The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra kicked off its first-ever Tchaikovsky Festival Friday night, with the latest concert in its Masterworks series featuring three classics by the 19th-century Russian wonder.

Marking his WSO debut, guest conductor Aziz Shokhakimov has been burning up stages everywhere since garnering second place at the prestigious Mahler International Conducting Competition in 2010. The Uzbekistan-born maestro, now principal conductor at the National Symphony Orchestra of Uzbekistan, exudes the type of confidence usually seen in those well beyond his tender age of 24 with the courage of his artistic convictions.

Tchaikovsky Festival

Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra

Centennial Concert Hall

Friday, Oct. 25

Attendance: 1,448

4 stars out of 5

The program featured acclaimed Canadian cellist Denise Djokic performing Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33 that unfolds as a wonderfully crafted set of theme and seven variations. But in Djokic's hands, it became so much more, as she displayed a breathtaking artistry that held the audience of 1,448 spellbound.

The Halifax-born musician immediately launched into the theme that provided the first taste of her well-burnished tone. Her lyrical phrasing and colourful palette of sound -- including razor-thin notes coaxed out of her instrument's extreme upper range -- was matched only by her virtuosic technique, immediately evident with her unflinching delivery of triplet passages during the first variation. In spite of a few perilous moments, her soulful cadenzas held the crowd rapt until her final, dazzling final variation with its quicksilver 32nd-note runs. Quite deservedly, this dynamo earned two curtain calls with a standing ovation for her enthralling performance.

If there were musical bucket lists, hearing a live performance of the stirring 1812 Overture -- complete with cannon fire -- should be on everyone's must-hear roster. Composed in 1880 to commemorate the withdrawal of Napoleon's army from Moscow in 1812, the one-movement work bursts with patriotic fervour, including interpolations of French national anthem the Marseillaise and Russian hymn God, Preserve Thy People.

However, it took a while for this warhorse to get going. Still, it must surely be every brass player's dream to play this work and the WSO trumpets and horns acquitted themselves admirably, performing their soaring thematic material with militaristic precision. So, too, did the percussion players -- particularly so when the heavens open during the work's thunderous climax that rings with bells. The moment everyone waits for -- the startling entry of the (recorded) cannons -- were convincing in volume if not necessarily by sound. But when the Royal Canadian Air Force Brass (Capt. John Fuller, director of music) dramatically entered onstage to join the WSO troops, all was forgiven for a memorable performance of this iconic work.

The second half of the program consisted of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, in F minor, Op. 36, last performed by the WSO in 2009. Shokhakimov's dramatic approach brought out the shadows and light of this passionately conceived, autobiographical work with its ominous "Fate" motif that hints at darker things to come.

The concert repeats at 8 p.m. tonight with a Sunday matinee performed at Brandon's Western Manitoba Centennial Auditorium, 3 p.m.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2013 B4

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