Sofia orchestra is fiercely elegant.

Byline: John Zeugner 


Worcester's considerable pan-Slavic population turned out in force Wednesday night at Mechanics Hall to celebrate Bulgaria's Sofia Festival Orchestra, perhaps Eastern Europe's newest, most energetic ensemble, led by the very charismatic composer/conductor Martin Panteleev. 

The program, appropriately enough, was heavy on Russian angst and bombast: selections from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F minor. Between those two thick layers rested Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor. That might have been a respite of Scandinavian restraint and irony, but in pianist Terrence Wilson's virtuosic hands it, too, was given an all-stops-out Slavic treatment of manic ebullience amid lyric suffering. The crowd loved every minute of this Slavic musical tsunami. At the end the audience stood cheering, stomping, demanding an encore. 

In a beguilingly thick accent, Panteleev remarked, "It seems you want us to play more." He turned and led his mostly young, very gender balanced musicians through a supercharged rendition of Shostakovich's ferociously exciting "Festival Overture."

This Sofia Festival Orchestra comprised 67 musicians, but any doubt that the group could achieve full symphonic effect perished instantly in the opening whiplash chords of Prokofiev's Introduction to "Romeo and Juliet." Panteleev had stunning absolute control of the ensemble's dynamics; with an epic circular sweep of his left hand he could bring orchestra to a roaring crescendo, and then instantly dampen it to a barely audible pizzicota whisper. 

The cello and woodwind sections were particularly enthralling, achieving a supple, sumptuous sound in the second movements of the Grieg and Tchaikovsky pieces. Principal cellist M.V. Stoyanov is an extraordinarily gifted musician who achieved a mesmerizing dialogue with Wilson in the Grieg's furtive, calmer moments. Wilson's was a dazzling performance, and the audience went gaga at the end of the Grieg. 

Clearly the first chairs of the Sofia's woodwind section are world-class soloists. Flutist Iva Lubomirova spun out a luminous, utterly pure sound in the interior movements of the Tchaikovsky, as did V.M. Valtchanov (oboe), P.Y. Panteleev (clarinet) and K. P. Vladimirov (bassoon). Their work was flawless. Maestro Panteleev's grasp of Tchaikovsky's message seemed less solidly based. There were moments of searing intensity and moments of simply going through the motions, as if the American tour had taken its toll. 

The conclusion, of course, was pure shimmering frenzy. All told, a concert of fierce conviction. It was clear Martin Panteleev and the Sofia Festival Orchestra could summon red fire first and dead cats afterward on their home turf of Slavic compositions.