Under the baton of Karina Canellakis (replacing scheduled conductor Teddy Abrams, whose broken collarbone did not heal in time for these concerts) the North Carolina Symphony gave the first of a pair of concerts of Russian music as part of the Rex Healthcare Summerfest 2015 concert series at the Town of Cary’s Koka Booth Amphitheatre.

Called “White Nights / Russian Festival I and II,” the program got off to a rousing start with the orchestra’s brass and percussion sections in full cry for Dmitri Shostakovich’s well-known “Festive Overture,” used as the theme for the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. The orchestra was in fine form, with the unison passages in the violin sections particularly well-played and articulated. Canellakis’ conducting style is well-suited to this music, the orchestra responding to her clear gestures which leave no doubt in knowing where “the beat” is. With continued experience, her left hand will achieve more independence and her vigorous conducting will adapt itself to more lyricism when appropriate.

Twenty-seven-year-old South Korean violinist Jinjoo Cho joined the orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s celebrated Concerto in D. While Cho has played this work often (see performances on YouTube), the first two movements seemed to drag, lacking the verve which one associates with this music. Nevertheless, we heard flawless playing; whether in the octave passages or in the first-movement cadenza; with no fewer than thirty-five triple or quadruple stops, her intonation was exquisite. The longer phrases suffered most from the slow tempi, dampening some of Tchaikovsky’s lyricism. Even the second movement, Andante, seemed slower than usual. My score, printed in Moscow in 1946, gives a tempo indication of MM=84. While this may be on the fast side of “andante,” tonight’s tempo was closer to MM=60.

Things improved in the third movement (Finale: Allegro vivacissimo). A gentle breeze swayed the tops of the Amphitheatre’s Loblolly pine trees, adding to the mood of the lyrical passages which precede the return of the vivacissimo theme. In the closing pages, Cho spurred the tempo forward so that the bravura finale was more like the Tchaikovsky we know and love, and gave evidence of why Cho won 1st prize at the 2014 9th International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, giving her a substantial cash prize and the four-year loan of the “Gingold” Stradivarius violin.

After intermission, Canellakis brought a velvet sheen to the melodic genius of Alexander Borodin, whose tunes are so “singable” that some made the transition to popular music, with words added (think “Stranger in Paradise”). The orchestra’s woodwind section was in fine form as its members tossed Borodin’s solo lines back and forth in dialogue.

To end this concert of Russian music, the decidedly Spanish-flavored Capriccio Espagnol of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov showed another side of Russian Romantic-era orchestral music. Spanish dances supply material for four of the work’s five movements (the original Russian title translates as “Capriccio on Spanish Themes”). Its jaunty rhythms featured incidental solos by clarinet, trumpet, flute, harp, and several solos beautifully played by Associate Concertmaster Dovid Friedlander.

The youthful conductor, violin soloist, and the number of younger musicians in the NC Symphony show that classical music is not only alive and well, but has a great future that includes playing this 19th and 20th-century literature that is the backbone of the symphonic repertoire.

More Russian music is scheduled for Saturday, June 13, when Canellakis leads the orchestra in Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto, with soloist Sean Chen, and in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” See the side bar for details.