Friday, April 24, 2009

A Russian Visitor

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.


  1. Andrew,

    I only heard the National Philharmonic once, in 2004, I believe; and I was not at all happy or impressed by it. I swear, they made the Houston Symphony sound great!

    Perhaps, however, they have improved since. I'm pleased that you were able to attend the concert, and I'm happy that the hearing was not a disaster for you or for Josh.

    You are right about Spivakov. I have never cared for Spivakov as a conductor. He should never have taken up the baton, in my opinion. I don't believe at this point in time that this particularly innocuous "DRUG" of Putin's (unlike some of the Prime Minister's other, more notorious, exported drugs) will ever make any noticeable impact on the West. On the podium, that is to say: He has absolutely no technical understanding of how to present to his audience a cohering, much less convincing, musical argument.

    We much prefer the Russian National Orchestra. London and Swiss critics always slobber over this ensemble, of course. But I wouldn't go that far. Today the RNO is "Russian" only in origin, rostering, name, and corporate sonority. It's woodwind players, I must say, are vastly superior to those of any other orchestra from Russia that I have heard; but then, I haven't heard ALL of them. More often, however, it seems nowadays that the RNO spends more time in the West than it does at home.

    To my ears, Berglund appears at present to be a keen match for the NRO. (We both furiously detest Nagano and Vedemikov.)

    As for Matsuev, what can I say? . . . Well, I heard the only student he currently has is Iggipu Zhukovoreanssohn. (Ouch! those poor ivories!)


  2. That is, Berglund is a good match for the RNO, not the National Russia Orchestra, which is a corn farmers' orchestra in Russia Township (not affiliated with the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music), Ohio.


  3. I wish Iggipu Zhukovoreanssohn HAD been the scheduled soloist. He would have been far more interesting than Matsuev.

    I have heard that Paavo Berglund is quite ill. Have you heard this?

    The concert wasn’t a disaster. It simply wasn’t particularly good.

    The only reason we attended was because I hate to miss touring orchestras. Unless one lives in New York, there are not many opportunities to hear visiting orchestras.

    In Minneapolis, for example, touring orchestras are NEVER presented.

    The Boston Celebrity Series presented three visiting orchestras this season. I guess I should be pleased that the local concert organization managed to sponsor three large-scale ensembles, because orchestras are frightfully expensive to present. I have no idea what next season will bring.

    There was a good-sized crowd, but I suspect that the size of the crowd was due to the fact that Boston gets to hear so few visiting orchestras. I doubt that anyone in the audience bought tickets particularly to hear Spivakov.

    The best Russian orchestra I have heard is the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic. I was truly impressed by that orchestra the two times I heard it (both times under Temirkanov).

    My father heard that orchestra back in the 1970’s, when it was still called the Leningrad Philharmonic, and he heard Mavrinsky. He insists that the orchestra positively stunk, and that he did not know what to make of Mavrinsky, who did not impress him at all.

    By the way, Dane, the Boston Symphony concerts that Temirkanov was scheduled to conduct—and which Josh and I skipped—were apparently a disaster. Wigglesworth offered nothing in the Beethoven and nothing in the Mahler. Violinist Julia Fischer cancelled at the last minute “for personal reasons”, and I am told that her “personal reasons” were that she did not want to play for Wigglesworth.

    The Boston Symphony suffered a staggering number of cancellations this season. The printed foster of guest artists and guest conductors turned out to be totally fictitious. Given the number of no-shows, the orchestra might as well have announced appearances by Wilhelm Furtwangler, Pablo Casals and Fritz Kreisler, too.

    The orchestra desperately needs new management. It is obvious that European artists neither like nor respect current management (or the current conductor, either). Otherwise, they would not continue blithely to thumb their noses at Boston and walk away from engagements.

  4. "printed roster", not "printed foster".

  5. Dane, I see that yesterday the Boston Celebrity Series announced next year’s program.

    The number of presentations has been reduced substantially, probably because of the economy.

    There will be only two visiting orchestras next year, but both concerts will be essential: Berlin under Rattle (Brahms, Schoenberg) and Leipzig under Chailly (Beethoven).

  6. Yes, friends in Moscow informed us that Maestro Berglund was GRAVELY ill, in fact. But the nature of his infirmity remains undisclosed. We hope he recovers.

    I've always admired his work, even during the seventies, while he was in charge in Bournemouth. I always felt he was underrated. One live performance during the seventies of the original version of Nielsen 5 under his guidance remains the finest I ever heard, other than Horenstein's earlier recording on the Unicorn label - or "Nonesuch." (Berglund's own, later EMI document was not as great.)

    It always saddens me to hear such news about the Boston Symphony, for obvious, sentimental reasons, Andrew. I wonder now if Colin Davis will cancel, as well. I understand that he will lead the Berlioz Requiem (or is it the "Te Deum"?) there next week. That should be quite thrilling, don't you think?

    Maybe Davis will actually be able to fill up Symphony Hall. A friend in Cleveland has written yesterday to say that Davis' concert this week has been sold out there and that all the performances, including the Mozart K 503 (my personal fav Mozart concerto), are conditio sine quibus non.

    I have never had any opportunity to hear the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Andrew. Some music lovers I know in Moscow have said it is the best in the country, though. Unfortunately, I was never in the right place at the right time to catch them.

    Of course, the orchestra will always remain the "Leningrad Phil" to me.

    I ALMOST got a chance to hear the Leningrad Philharmonic, in 1987. In fact, I had purchased tickets for the event. I'd just completed my "Candidate's Degree" from MGU (a Candidate's Degree falls between a M.Sc. and a Doctorate). A small group of us "escapees" then took the train to Leningrad in order to hear the concert and to visit the Hermitage, still my favorite art museum in all the world.

    Before the curtain, the four of us were arrested by the KGB while we were standing outside on the street. The charge was "improper [internal] passport," which was a lie from the pit of hell.

    Not only did I miss the concert, but I missed school for the next 13 months. That, however, is a very, very long and depressing story.


  7. I would have thought the Soviets would have been very, very careful about arresting American citizens in 1987. I certainly hope they did not hold you for thirteen months!

    It is the Berlioz Te Deum that will be performed in Boston, and we shall have to miss it. The timing is poor for us. Josh begins his exams a week from Monday.

    Do you want to know, Dane, how little interest I have in the Boston Symphony? I have not even bothered to check next season’s concerts yet. Josh and I won’t even look at the schedule until the end of the summer. If my recollection is correct, we only attended three concerts this season, and only one of those three concerts was worth attending. Had Temirkanov not cancelled, we would have attended a fourth concert.

    I always thought Berglund was particularly fine in Sibelius, Nielsen and Shostakovich. Was he remarkable in anything else?

    May I assume that the name of your friend in Cleveland is Donald Rosenberg?

  8. Dane, you have inspired me to examine the Boston Symphony 2009-2010 season.

    The orchestra will be repeating an astonishing number of pieces played this season, which dumbfounds me.

    James Levine will be leading a Beethoven cycle, which also dumbfounds me.

    There are actually seven subscription concerts that look appealing:

    Daniele Gatti conducting Brahms, Hindemith and R. Strauss

    Bernard Haitink conducting Debussy, Ibert and Brahms

    Christoph Von Dohnanyi conducting Bartok, Martinu and Dvorak

    Colin Davis conducting Mozart and Elgar

    James Levine conducting Berg, R. Strauss and Mahler

    Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos conducting Mendelssohn and Rossini

    Bernard Haitink conducting Beethoven and Bartok

    Josh and I may have to invite my parents to Boston to hear the first Haitink concert in conjunction with the Berlin Philharmonic concert—those two concerts would make a trip for my parents worthwhile.

  9. Andrew,

    Paavo Berglund was an excellent conductor of Russian and Czech music, as well. He was a better Janacek conductor than Macherras. He was not, however, as distinguished an interpreter of German, French, or Italian music.

    Your parents should really enjoy the concert coupling described, Andrew. Good idea. The Berlin concert is certainly an event not to be missed. I am also intrigued by the Gatti program of Brahms and Hindemith. I have been impressed with Gatti's work. He seems to be getting better and better, in fact.

    Now, Andrew, did you really HAVE to get me started on Rosenberg again?

    What really burns me up more than this zealot (your own, excellent word, by the way) is how all the other zealots in Rosenberg's solidarity click continue to ignore the fact that this critic practically LOBBIED the Cleveland Orchestra during the nineties to hire Franz as Dohnanyi’s successor. I know this for a fact because I visited Severance Hall regularly between 1993 and 2000 – between eight and ten times per winter season, driving down from Buffalo; and I heard ALL of Franz’s concerts and read ALL of Rosenberg’s reviews of Franz’s concerts in the PD over that period.

    Something happened to Rosenberg after Franz performed his glowing account of the Bruckner 8 in the newly renovated hall, in the spring of 2000 (one of my last concerts there before I left New York). Rosenberg went inexplicably INSANE with personal animosity.

    Zealots, however, are unable to recognize another zealot looming right in front of the face, just as any zealot, by definition, cannot recognize reality when it is so obvious to everyone else, however unsophistocated or uneducated.

    Such was the situation under the old Soviet order as I remember only too well. To zealots of communism, other zealots, like the ubiquitous KGB toadies – “informers” – didn’t really exist at all.

    It is well documented that throughout history totalitarian governments have motivated the oppressed people to conjure within their vernacular a rich vocabulary of vulgar metaphors designed to derisively evoke the daily miseries shaping their collective lives, a phenomenon which served an obvious, practical purpose – as purposely practical as the more literal, common usage of a multiple number of words for “snow” in a few of the Eskimo-Aleut languages spoken in Siberia, for instance. It was necessary in some of these Inuit cultures (not ALL of them) to grammatically distinguish one “quality” of snow from another, since this substance was so important in defining the daily lives of those people who spoke the language.

    In the Russian vocabulary of the Soviet era one could find multiple words for one other particular substance that could be found anywhere in the world where one could also find an animal having a human nature. Even in Siberia. Or, perhaps I should say, ESPECIALY in Siberia.

    Each of these Russian words specified a different “quality” of this particular substance, all species of which providing suitable metaphors for the miserable ironies of Soviet life.

    One such Russian word was “dryst,” from which the word “drystun” was derived. “Drystun” was an especially appropriate slang term for any kind of communist zealot, palpably blinded from the sight of reality right on the end of his nose . . .

    Or the leg.

    “Dryst,” you see, refers to that specific “quality” of human matter, the moisture content of which is sufficiently high as to occasion an effect upon the inertia of the mass under the influence of gravity along a vertical surface, smooth or unsmooth.


  10. You know, Dane, I was never especially impressed with Charles Mackerras, although I undeniably love his recordings of the Janacek operas on Decca.

    I would not dream of missing Berlin, although I am hardly a Rattle fan. My parents will definitely have to come to Boston to hear Berlin. I already told them to mark their calendars.

    I think Gatti is very good. I have been impressed every time I have heard him. I wish he appeared in the U.S. more often.

    It is regrettable that Gatti appears here so seldom—but Abbado, Chailly and Thielemann come here not at all.

    It is depressing to think of all the turkeys leading American orchestras: Alsop, Gilbert, Levine, Robertson, Schwarz, Slatkin, Spano. The list seems endless.

    I suppose you read about Paavo Jarvi’s run-in with the law?