Russische Staatskapelle, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Tschaikowsky

Second night in a row at the Tschaikowsky Hall, this time for some actual Tschaikowsky.  The program said this concert was to celebrate his 170th birthday, but he was born on 7 May and it is now 24 November, and that’s an even bigger gap than between the Gregorian and Julian calendars, so I’m not sure what calendar they were using to do the scheduling.

The Russian Staatskapelle performed once again under Valery Polyansky.  Tonight, he split up the chorus and orchestra, with an a capella chorus before the intermission, and the Fourth Symphony (with no chorus) after it.

Russia has a long tradition of religious a capella music, rich in eastern polyphony.  Tschaikowsky added works to it.  The nine pieces on the program tonight, however, were not among them, instead emerging from Western traditions and altogether uninteresting.  Nevertheless, I have praised the Staatskapelle chorus before, when I heard it sing Mahler and Beethoven, so hearing it now without an orchestra in front of it made the first half of the concert rewarding.  Sumptuous singing.

The Staatskapelle orchestra, on the other hand, has previously struck me as understanding big concepts but not quite executing small details.  In general, that also applied this evening.  However, I would assume they are more comfortable with the Russian symphonies than with the Austrian ones, and so sounded more confident and accurate.  I also like Polyansky’s spirited readings with this orchestra.

The chorus was slow taking the stage at the start of the concert, so we were sitting in our seats for maybe fifteen minutes waiting.  The man next to me struck up a conversation.  He asked me what I thought about the acoustics in the Tschaikowsky Hall.  I was less than enthusiastic, but said they were reasonable for a medium-to-higher-up seat (where we sat, and where I buy my seats now, having decided the acoustics are not good in the expensive seats lower down).  He told me that amphitheater-style auditoria had the best acoustics.  I said that if they were designed right, this could be the case, but not necessarily.  I pointed out that the Moscow Conservatory (sadly still closed) had the best acoustics in Russia, and it is a “box shape” (to use his term).  He did not seem impressed, and asked about how it is in “your country.”  I told him the Musikverein had excellent acoustics, and it is also box-shaped.  And the best hall I have ever been in for acoustics is the Tonhalle in Zurich, which is also box-shaped.  He said it was not possible, because amphitheaters are always better.  Then he turned his head away and did not say another word to me all night – not in the few minutes we still had to wait before the concert, nor in the intermission, nor even “good night” as he turned and walked out the long way down the aisle to avoid even exiting the same way as I did.

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New Russia Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Bloch, Bruch, Mahler

Back to the Tschaikowsky Hall for a concert of the “New Russia” Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the somewhat eccentric Estonian violinist Andres Mustonen, who may have just walked in from an artist colony or homeless shelter somewhere.  He appeared wearing oversized black rags which looked like he had found them balled up at the bottom of a larger housemate’s laundry basket.  To add a splash of color, or maybe to cover a large stain, he seemed to have ripped the corner off a crimson-and-black patterned tasseled curtain and tied it around his neck like a scarf.  What is left of his long mop of hair he attached to his head using an oversized hair clip strategically placed over his large bald spot.

As he conducted, Mustonen leapt all over the podium, and sometimes off of it, reaching over the music stands of the first row strings to pound out a point.  If he could have safely jumped into the back row of the orchestra, he might have done the same for them.  As an interpretive style, he muscled his way through the music in the program.  He did, however, have an obviously warm relationship with this group, all hugs and smiles, and certainly brought the musicianship out of them.

The concert advertisements, and even the printed program, indicated the concert would begin with Wagner’s Faust Overture.  Obviously, someone lost that wager, since they never performed the work at all.  Instead, we skipped ahead to Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo.  This is an eccentric work I have heard of but not previously heard, and I am not sure that giving an eccentric work an eccentric reading helps in making it understandable.  The sober cello soloist, Nataliya Gutman, was herself a bit overwhelmed by Mustonen’s approach.  I may have to go hear this piece again some time.

Next came Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto.  Soloist Viktor Tretyakov’s reading worked better with Mustonen’s interpretation (although Tretyakov, in his crisp white tie and tails, made quite a visual contrast with Mustonen).  Unfortunately, this meant that the softer passages lacked nuance.  Sounded good from a pure musical perspective, but all together too heavy.

However, Mustonen’s approach worked best for the final work: Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, producing a performance of overwhelmingly neurotic proportions.  Not only did the louder and faster passages rage, but even the softer and slower passages were frenetic, in the way that a sedated psychiatric patient’s mind races inside a mellow and restrained body, plotting out what he will do when the medication wears off and he will be set free from the rubber room at the asylum.  The orchestra was up to the challenge.  Some of the audience was not, and gradually started walking out throughout the entire symphony.  Those of us who stayed to the end gave a thundering applause, and I certainly hoped Mustonen and the orchestra would treat us to an encore of another entire Mahler symphony of their choice.  No such luck.

Russian National Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Beethoven, Strauss, Ravel, Britten, Pletnëv, Tschaikowsky

Again, another evening with the Russian National Orchestra, indeed a world-class ensemble, this time holding its 20th anniversary gala in the Tschaikowsky Hall.  Good to hear it playing music it is more familiar with – not so technical as its Wagner on Monday.  Kent Nagano conducted the first half of the concert, and he was not as technical as he had been on Monday either.  His form remained easy for the orchestra to follow, but with orchestra and conductor more familiar with the music, they let loose tonight.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture #3, in a dramatic reading, albeit taken a little too fast.  Don Juan by Richard Strauss followed.  In this second piece, Nagano allowed the winds to play in a more-typically Russian style, which may have made this the most neurotic Don Juan I’ve heard (different, albeit in a good way).  The first half of the concert closed with Ravel’s Bolero, a work which allowed the individual members of the orchestra to showcase themselves.  The Bolero is a dreadfully interminable piece, no matter who performs it, but I tried to block out the big picture music and focus on the individual instrumentalists, which with this group made the work bearable.

After the intermission, Mikhail Pletnëv, the orchestra’s founder, took the podium.  They’ve obviously let him out of prison in Thailand again for the occasion.

Pletnëv began his half of the concert with Britten’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Purcell (originally composed for an educational film, with commentary, as the “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” here performed in its revised purely orchestral version).  Like Ravel’s Bolero, this piece allows the individual instrumentalists to showcase themselves, and that they did.  Although Ravel was known as a great orchestrator, Britten was by far the more talented and creative composer, and Pletnëv’s reading with the RNO certainly provided virtuosity, excitement, and even raw aggression in a way maybe only a Russian orchestra could achieve.

Pletnëv’s own Jazz Suite, which he composed last year, rounded off the scheduled portion of the program.  Pletnëv clearly selected the work because it also allowed for different orchestra members – second chairs and others – to display their own virtuosity.  Unlike the jazz-inspired works composed by Schostakowitsch to thumb his nose at the Soviet authorities, which were really classical pieces inspired by jazz, Pletnëv’s piece was actual jazz music scored for full orchestra.  As such, it gave me the feeling that I was back at a Boston Pops concert.  I’m not so familiar with jazz, so cannot judge the originality of the work, but it did not come across as very original, as Schostakowitsch’s jazz-inspired works do, for example.  Still, the orchestra had fun, and so, therefore, did the audience.

As an encore, Pletnëv led the orchestra in an inspiring and rousing rendition of Tschaikowsky’s Slavonic March.  I think the audience wanted more encores, but, sadly, none was forthcoming.

Russian National Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Wagner, Die Walküre

If people are looking for Wagnerian voices these days, perhaps they need to spend more time looking around the post-Soviet space.  There should be enough talent over here, some of which was on show tonight at a concert performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre at the Tschaikowsky Hall with the Russian National Orchestra under Kent Nagano.

The undisputed star of the evening was the Wotan, Aleksey Tanovitsky, a member of the Ensemble from the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg.  He has a warm deep voice – more bass than baritone – and portrayed Wotan as a concerned father (indeed, only two characters in this opera are not Wotan’s children).  I suspect he was also the member of the cast most familiar with his role, since, more than anyone else, he had a hard time standing still on stage and clearly wanted to act.  He has a large gorgeous voice, which may not have the edge associated with Wotan when he gets angry, but he made his portrayal warm, engaging, and sympathetic.

There has been some hype about the search for a tenor capable of singing Siegmund.  The man selected was Mikhail Vekua, a Georgian who was ethnically-cleansed from Abkhazia in the early 1990s and ended up at the Moscow Conservatory.  I’ve seen him – and been impressed by him – before as Cavaradossi in Tosca at the Stanislavsky Opera.  Small of stature, he nevertheless has the voice.  This was his first-ever German role, and while he learned to sing in German (with good and clear pronunciation), he clearly does not speak a word of German.  So he had to read closely from the text.  When he tried acting and looked away, losing his place, which he unfortunately did often enough, he got the music right but had to insert nonsense syllables.  And since he did not understand what he was singing, he did not always get the emotions right.  I’m not convinced he is a Heldentenor, but perhaps if he gets comfortable in German then he may develop in that direction.

As Sieglinde, Svyetlana Sozdateleva had a relatively deep soprano voice capable of great swells of sound and emotional acting.  The Armenian bass Vazlen Gazaryan sang a very dark, threatening, and impressive Hunding.  These two could go on stage anywhere.  Similarly, Kseniya Vyaznikova also held her own as a scalding and scolding Fricka.  She made sure husband Wotan knew who was really the boss.

Unfortunately, there was one weak link: the title role.  Larisa Gogolevskaya, as Brünhilde, another import from the Mariinsky, went sharp on most of her higher register.  Her voice was big enough, but she should perhaps sing lower soprano roles.

For the Russian National Orchestra, this concert must have been doubly unusual.  First, I do not believe they perform many complete operas.  Second, I doubt they perform much Wagner.  So not only did the music seem new to them, but they did not understand how to portray the drama.  This is a shame, since the Russian National Orchestra is world-class and the playing was certainly up to standard.  But Nagano, using a very crisp and clear technique, walked them carefully through it.  Although there were a few missed cues, in general they responded to him, but had to think so much about the music that they may have forgotten that they were performing an opera.  I also do not believe that this opera was in Nagano’s repertory previously.  So the performance was steady but not insightful.  At least Nagano clearly wanted the singers to shine, and kept a lid on the orchestra in order to allow the voices to predominate (although these were big voices, since the orchestra was on stage and not in the pit the potential was still there for the orchestra to overwhelm them, something Nagano ensured did not happen).

The acoustics halfway up the Tschaikowsky Hall are definitely better than in the more expensive seats.  Now that I have sat here for two concerts, I can confirm that.  Nevertheless, it does not come close to the now-closed Conservatory.  And the hall was in full communist mode tonight: the lady in the cloakroom insisted on seeing my ticket before she took my coat (even though I had already gone through building security and a separate ticket control just to get that far, and had waited for ten minutes in the cloakroom line since the Stalinist architects built this hall with the world’s most inefficiently-designed cloak rooms – why else would I be giving her my coat if I were not there for the concert?  There was another seemingly mandatory ticket check as well by the usher selling programs).  Also rather oddly, the concert was five hours long (the full opera plus intermissions), but began at the usual Moscow start time of 7:00 p.m. as opposed to an early start time, and did so on a Monday night; I have no idea why they did not start this earlier and/or schedule it for a non-work-night.  This does not bother me, since I am nocturnal, but must bother Russians who tend to be morning people – I suppose someone in Central Planning assigned them this night and since all concerts begin at 7:00 they were given no choice (better to do what we are told around here and never ask questions).