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.