Moscow Virtuosi and Hibla Gerzmava charm Chicago audience

Soprano Hibla Gerzmava singing with the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra in Chicago, Saturday, June 3.

By M.L. Rantala
Classical Music Critic

A gem like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra outshines a lot of other classical ensembles, but there’s a lot to be said for trying something different now and again, especially when many national and international orchestras and ensembles make their way to Chicago.

The Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, led by founder, violinist, and conductor Vladimir Spivakov, is in the midst of an American tour sponsored by the Cherry Orchard Foundation. Sunday night the ensemble performed at Symphony Center’s Orchestra Hall. It was an evening of mostly short pieces and excerpts, but the presence of one performer ended up making it a very special evening.

Soprano Hibla Gerzmava was stunning, singing mostly opera arias. This native of Abkhazia (on the east coast of the Black Sea, south of Russia), wowed the audience with silky sound, admirable clarity, emotional depth, and riveting interpretations.

She grabbed the audience immediately with her stellar approach to “Casta Diva” from Bellini’s “Norma”. It had prayer-like intensity and she seemed to shape every phrase with exquisite passion and genuine emotion. It was a memorable performance of a well-trodden aria: no mean feat.

She was as equally adept with arias by Verdi, Cilea, and Poulenc. She had heft when power was required, but she was also able to render music with a gorgeous whisper. She moved around the stage with a natural flair, at one moment entreating conductor Spivakov, at another flirting amusingly with the first violins.

Her last number on the program was a rousing Neapolitan song, “Ti voglio tanto bene”. She created such excitement, that many members of the audience were on their feet before the music had died away.

While she had already done all humanly possible to capture the hearts of her audience, she returned for an encore and charmed them all over again with an utterly beguiling “O mio babbino cara” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi”. It was luminous and heartwarming.

In the first half of the program there was another featured musician, 14-year-old cellist Danielle Alta. As the soloist in Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei”, she put pleasing tone on display. The performance was pleasant, with Spivakov surrounding the young soloist with a blanket of soothing support.

Alta was also at the center of attention in David Popper’s Concert Polonaise for Cello and Orchestra. Spivakov expertly drew out the amusing and highly entertaining aspects of the work while Alta navigated the cadenza with ease and high spirits.

The concert opened with strings only (23 players: 22 men and a single woman) with a smooth and bright performance of Mozart’s Divertimento in D Major, K. 136. This was followed by Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony in C Minor. It opened with admirable agitation and tension, but by the end, the work seemed to have lost some of its teeth.

The audience, which took up most of the main floor and over half of the lower balcony, were very appreciative of the performance, with several people approaching the stage and offering both Spivakov and Gerzmava flowers and gifts.