On Wednesday night, Joshua and I went to Symphony Hall to hear The National Philharmonic Of Russia, now on a prolonged tour of the United States and Canada.
The National Philharmonic Of Russia, formed in 2003, is a state-chartered and state-funded orchestra, the only such ensemble created in post-communist Russia.
The orchestra’s conductor is Vladimir Spivakov, who began his career as a violinist before he took up conducting.
The genesis of The National Philharmonic Of Russia goes back to a very-public spat between Spivakov and Mikhail Pletnev, former colleagues who had a vicious falling-out in 2002.
In 1990, Pletnev founded The Russian National Orchestra, a privately-funded orchestra that has always derived much of its financial support from the West. Pletnev served as The Russian National Orchestra’s chief conductor from 1990 until 1999.
After Pletnev stepped down from The Russian National Orchestra, Spivakov was named as his successor. Spivakov, however, did not work out as Pletnev’s replacement, and in 2002 Spivakov was informed that his contract would not be renewed beyond 2003.
Angered at the news, Spivakov resigned his post on the spot and convinced Vladimir Putin to help him form a new, state-sponsored ensemble.
The new ensemble was formed within weeks of Spivakov’s sudden departure from The Russian National Orchestra. The new orchestra’s name deliberately mirrored the name of its rival—and, in fact, the new orchestra attempted to steal players from its established competitor.
After a couple of years of bilious public feuding, things settled down between the two orchestras. The bitter rivalry cooled, at least publicly. Both orchestras now enjoy committed audiences in Moscow and manage to co-exist peacefully in the same city.
However, only The Russian National Orchestra has established itself as a force in the world of commercial recordings and only The Russian National Orchestra is a regular guest at Europe’s most prestigious music festivals. The National Philharmonic Of Russia does not enjoy the same level of prestige in the West as its counterpart.
The current North American tour of The National Philharmonic Of Russia, its second visit to this hemisphere, is a long and grueling one. I find it exhausting simply to look at the orchestra’s schedule of concerts on the tour. Few of the venues on the schedule are notable concert venues—indeed, many of the orchestra’s concerts are in backwaters. The current tour clearly was undertaken to generate foreign currency, not to raise the orchestra’s profile or to enhance the orchestra’s prestige in North America.
On its tour, the orchestra has brought only three programs, all Russian. The musicians must be sick unto death of playing the same three programs over and over and over.
The Boston program consisted of Liadov’s “The Enchanted Lake”, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo And Juliet” and four numbers from Prokofiev’s “Romeo And Juliet”.
This was not an appealing program, but The National Philharmonic Of Russia was one of only three touring orchestras to appear in Boston this season, and Josh and I hated to miss it.
The orchestra was not bad, actually. It had a big, bass-heavy sound, apt for Romantic Russian repertory. The string ensemble demonstrated the richness of sound typical of Russian orchestras. The brass played very cleanly, which surprised me. The wind ensemble was certainly competent, but the winds were not special.
The playing, if nowise remarkable, was at a high level. Of course, the playing SHOULD have been at a high level, given the number of times the orchestra has played this particular program.
The orchestra did not offer a challenging program nor did it offer any hint how the musicians might fare in music of other nationalities. I doubt, for instance, that the orchestra’s playing would have impressed in more cerebral repertory, such as Mozart or Beethoven, or a Martinu-Hindemith pairing.
Spivakov is not much of a conductor. He favors slow tempi, and the music constantly loses tension in his hands. He has not an ounce of rhythmic life in him. Everything he does is obvious and overstated. He is a better violinist than conductor.
Despite the fact that the pianist was atrocious, the best performance of the evening came in the Rachmaninoff. The orchestra had the right sound for Rachmaninoff, and Spivakov seemed to be right at home in Rachmaninoff, obtaining lush sound and sweeping ardor from the players. I actually do not object to the Rachmaninoff Piano Concert No. 1, and the orchestral portion of the concerto was a great success. The soloist, Denis Matsuev, was nothing more than a pounder of keyboards.
Oddly, the Tchaikovky, which I thought might be right up Spivakov’s alley, did not work at all. It was the least successful performance of the evening. The reading lacked character, tension and atmosphere. Further, Spivakov was unable to knit the various sections of the composition into a whole. The climaxes at the end seemed to come from nowhere, since nothing had happened earlier in the piece to justify such a cataclysmic outburst.
The National Philharmonic Of Russia heard in Boston is hardly a first-class orchestra, but two months working with Claudio Abbado or Riccardo Chailly might reveal it to be an orchestra with astonishing potential. Spivakov certainly needs to be replaced as soon as possible.
This weekend, Josh and I plan to attend one of three performances, with the choice being left to Josh. Either we will attend Publick Theatre’s production of “Humble Boy”, Boston Ballet’s production of “The Sleeping Beauty” or an all-Haydn concert by Boston’s Handel And Haydn Society. Josh will make his decision as the weekend progresses, depending upon his mood and his study load.
After this weekend, Josh and I will do nothing until his exams are over.