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A trip through music history with the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig

Riccardo Chailly
Riccardo Chailly (Jens Gerber /)

Reading music history can be rewarding. Hearing it is much more fun.

Wednesday night's concert by the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, presented at the Kennedy Center by Washington Performing Arts, was a perfect case in point.

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The program offered Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, a work premiered in 1845 by the Gewandhaus Orchestra, and Bruckner's Symphony No. 7, which received its first performance 130 years ago by, yes, the Gewandhaus Orchestra.

So, OK, the players are a wee bit different now, but just think of the tradition, the legacy -- that remains unchanged. With roots going back to 1743 (a century before the Vienna Philharmonic was founded), making it the world's oldest civic orchestra, the Leipzig ensemble represents an unbroken link from Bach to our time.

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Not that any of this is news. It's just that opportunities to experience the Gewandhaus Orchestra don't come often in these parts, so I enjoyed this encounter, and the reminder of that historical continuity, all the more.

The music-making was, of course, attraction enough on Wednesday.

The well-worn Mendelssohn concerto sounded youthful again in the hands of violinist Nikolaj Znaider and with seamless, spirited support from Gewandhaus principal conductor, Riccardo Chailly, whose own expressive force assured playing of great cohesion and involvement from the orchestra.

The first time I heard Znaider, when he made his Baltimore Symphony Orchestra debut in 2001, I was struck by the penetrating quality of his tone, at once sweet and muscular, and his instinctive way of breathing fresh life into even the most familiar phrases. Those qualities remained very much in evidence on this occasion.

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Chailly, who will soon add the duties of La Scala music director to his schedule, remains one of the most valued interpreters on the international scene. His account of Bruckner's Seventh underlined that status.

With his effortless control of the score's massive architecture, not to mention extraordinary concern for the smallest of thematic and instrumental details, Chailly had the music unfolding organically, inevitably.

Crescendos developed with seamless power, none more strikingly than the first thunderous peak in the first movement. The Adagio, with its aching themes gradually reaching a kind of solace, was masterfully shaped by the conductor; the build-up to the cymbal crash proved downright soul-rattling.

Chailly's fine ear for dynamic contrasts made the Scherzo all the more compelling. And he handled the finale's shifting moods and tempos with great finesse, ensuring a single, cohesive statement.

Throughout, the Gewandhaus Orchestra showed off its technical sheen. The string playing was richly nuanced (the symphony opened with exquisite delicacy from the violins and a luminous tone from the cellos), while brass and woodwinds offered abundant tonal character.

The sense of attachment to the music was palpable -- given the ensemble's history, what it really sounded like was ownership.

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