Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Sibelius, Grieg

Back to the Khachaturian Hall for a concert by the adult orchestra (Armenian Philharmonic) tonight, under the baton of Djong Victorin Yu, a Korean conductor (with a Philadelphia connection – he studied music composition at Penn; his age is unclear from his bio, and he looks ageless, but I think he must have been there in the 1970s).

Sibelius framed the concert, starting with Finlandia.  Yu took it at a slower tempo than usual, to emphasize Sibelius’ lush tonalities.  Unfortunately, this may not have worked so well with this orchestra.  The orchestra is perfectly adequate, but its sound is not quite full enough, particularly in the strings.  Fortunately, Yu allowed the brass section to growl in a way that Vengerov did not allow these same musicians to do when they backed up the Youth State Symphony on Tuesday, but they could not compensate for the strings.  Oddly, Yu took a different approach for the final work – Sibelius’ Second Symphony, a moody work often performed much more slowly than Yu did it today.  The faster tempo worked better for this orchestra, since we did not have to dwell on the tonalities.

Between the two Sibelius pieces came an unenthusiastic performance of nine movements from Grieg’Peer Gynt incidental music.  I’m wondering if the Sibelius second symphony after the intermission was more enthusiastic because half the orchestra rushed themselves to the bar in the basement of the concert hall during the break.

As an encore, we got the Andante from Grieg’s From Holberg’s Time.  Unfortunately, this is all strings.  Again, they were not so bad, but simply a tad thin and uninspired.

Armenian State Youth Orchestra, Khachaturian Hall

Rimsky-Korsakov, Sibelius, Bach, Schubert, Khachaturian

The Armenian State Youth Orchestra performed at Yerevan’s Khachaturian Hall this evening, under the baton of Maxim Vengerov.  The hall was packed to overflowing, with the standing-room audience even crowding all of the aisles.  Judging by the number of close protection agents, I assume there were also a lot of government officials in attendance.

Students from the Yerevan Conservatory make up most of the members of this orchestra, supplemented where necessary by members of the Armenian State Philharmonic.  By my observation, the Conservatory must only train students in a limited number of instruments, since half of the woodwinds, all but two of the basses, and the entire brass and percussion sections were clearly not students.  That said, the orchestra – including its student sections – sounded reasonably good.  Another oddity: the student strings (i.e., violins, viole, celli, and two bassists) were obviously trained to sway together like grain in the wind – I know that most orchestras have the strings bow together, but this swaying business was disconcerting.  Two violinists did not get the memo: the second row second chair sat immobile and stared intently at his lap when he played and a woman several rows back swayed completely out of synch with everyone else.

Vengerov seemed to want to protect the students from being overwhelmed by the adults, so he muffled the brass.  This worked for the piece after the intermission – Rimsky-Korsakov’Scheherezade – since the strings lead that work, and their sound represented the waves surging and crashing.  It did not work so well for the concert’s opening work, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture, where Vengerov did not permit the brass choirs to soar.

Between the two Rimsky pieces on the program came the Sibelius Violin Concerto, with Jaroslaw Nadrzycki, a young Pole with bizarre technique, as the soloist.  Instead of holding the violin diagonally under his chin and bowing across his body, Nadrzycki held the violin parallel to the floor, stuck his elbow high in the air above his head, and fiddled from above.  I do not know if it was the technique, or some other lack of talent, that produced the thin and sour tone.  The concerto dragged on like this for half an hour.  If Vengerov were going to trot out a young soloist, it is a shame he chose this one instead of showcasing a local Conservatory student – indeed, from the brief violin solos in the Russian Easter Festival Overture, the concertmistress may have been a good choice.  At the very least, he could have let her play the violin solos in Scheherazade, but he brought Nadrzycki out for that too, marring those sections.

For encores, we got three.  One came before the first intermission, when Nadrzycki played an arrangement for solo violin of Schubert’Erlkönig.  This arrangement seemed designed to maximize showmanship and fingering, and to minimize emotion.  The Erlkönig might as well have taken the child and been done with it.

At the end of the second half of the concert, Vengerov came out on stage with his own violin, and teamed up with Nadrzycki and the student strings for the largo movement of Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins.  Vengerov’s sweet and sensitive sound contrasted with Nadrzcki’s tones.

As a final encore, Vengerov knew how to bring the audience roaring to its feet: the Lezghinka from Khachaturian’s ballet Gayaneh.  For this, Vengerov unleashed the hounds, and the orchestra – especially the wild percussionist – played without restraint.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Božić, Taneyev, Tschaikowsky

Since this was my last evening in Moscow for this month, I figured I might as well spend it at a concert.  The Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra performed in the Tschaikowsky Concert Hall under the baton of Vladislav Chernushenko, with the Glinka Chorus of St. Petersburg highlighting the first two pieces.

The concert opened with a 1995 work by Serbian music professor and composer Svetislav BožićRecited Prayer for soloists, chorus, and string orchestra.  The work reminded me in part of the mystical cantata L’Atlantida by Manuel de Falla, setting polyphonic religious choral music on one hand together with strings playing long lines with periodic dissonance on the other. In this way, Božić managed to create a respectfully-traditional prayerful work with just enough updated modernity.

This piece led rather nicely to John of Damascus by Sergey Taneyev.  Taneyev was one of many typical Russian 19th Century eccentric artists.  A talented pianist and composer at the Moscow Conservatory, he decided he would not write any proper compositions for public consumption until he had completed academic exercises using every conceivable polyphonic combination – these exercises later served him well when he became a professor of counterpoint at the conservatory and tormented his students with them.  John of Damascus was his opus #1, finally written when he was twenty-eight, and which he saw as a short “Russian Requiem.”  Taneyev was an admirer of Tschaikowsky, but had a low opinion of the Russian nationalist “Mighty Handful,” so while typically Russian, this work exhibited a somewhat different take on “Russian” music than what grew out of the nationalist camp.  The choral music had its roots firmly in Russian polyphonic church music, but the accompanying orchestration had the longer and clearer lines of Tschaikowsky rather than the darker and rawer music usually associated with Russia.

The first two pieces were very moving.  The Tschikowsky Fifth Symphony after the intermission was less so.  Chernushenko gave it a slow and deliberate reading – it can be one or the other, but to do both is less convincing.  At this speed, he needed to draw out the lines more, but did not.  His technique appears to work better for choral music, but when put in front of an orchestra without chorus, Erich Leinsdorf’s comments about choral conductors come to mind.  Chernushenko is indeed a choral conductor from St. Petersburg.  He is also the long-time (1979-2002) rector of the St. Petersburg Conservatory.  The chorus which sang the first two works, the Glinka Chorus of St. Petersburg, is his baby, and responded well to him.  The orchestra not as much.

His conducting technique was clear, but he mostly made indications to the orchestra and then leaned back on a supporting bar behind the podium and let the orchestra play.  Thankfully, this orchestra (Vladimir Fedoseyev’s band) can play.  But Chernushenko could have drawn out more emotion or at least interpretation.  I also found the seating arrangement he used rather peculiar: he reversed the strings, so that the second violins, celli, and basses sat on the left and the first violins and viole on the right.  When the wind instruments joined for the second two pieces, he did not reverse their seating, but also did not sit them in a customary arrangement: he put the bassoons and the trombones in the center and arrayed the treble-clef instruments around them – except for the horns, which he had sit with the viole. I did not understand what he intended to accomplish with this seating arrangement.

Bolshoi Opera Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Tschaikowsky

Although not at all a fan of the Bolshoi, which has fallen to a level of petty bickering and political intrigue (with accompanying collapse in musical quality) that should only be possible in an Italian opera house, I decided to attend a concert by the Bolshoi Orchestra in the Tschaikowsky Concert Hall this evening for the chance to hear some less-performed music under the baton of Aleksandr Lazarev: a suite from Prokofiev’s Cinderella and Rachmaninov’s Symphony #1.

The Prokofiev suite, in an arrangement by Lazarev himself, opened with the sort of muddy string playing I have come to expect from this orchestra.  However, under Lazarev’s enthusiastic direction, the playing did improve somewhat, especially when the winds got to join in.  It is easy to forget that this orchestra, besides being an opera orchestra, is also a ballet orchestra.  So if it can do very little else, at least it can dance.  Lazarev helped it along by himself dancing wildly all over the podium.  At several points, he got himself spun completely around so that he had turned his back completely on the orchestra and appeared to be trying to conduct the audience.  He also sprung himself off the podium a couple of times, once dividing the first and second violins from each other, another time appearing to help out a cellist in the third row.  This may have been the best I have heard this orchestra sound, although someone really should put those murky strings out of their misery.

The dancing continued after the intermission, even though the music became moodier.  The Rachmaninov Symphony #1 is an odd work – the composer’s first attempt at major symphonic music, and although he had already done quite a bit of composition, including an opera, this piece could have used some more maturing.  Part of this has to do with its unfortunate history, which meant it was never properly edited: its premiere under the baton of Aleksandr Glazunov was an unmitigated disaster.  Glazunov, who made such overwhelmingly positive contributions to music through his teaching, mentoring, administration, composing, and willingness to stand up for Jewish musicians against official Russian anti-Semitism, was not a talented conductor.  So, for the premiere of this symphony in 1897, Glazunov failed to rehearse the orchestra properly, preventing Rachmaninov from making the late edits that most composers do during the rehearsals before premieres, and Glazunov also showed up for the actual concert already heavily drunk.  As a result, the symphony received such awful reviews that Rachmaninov withdrew the orchestral score, which he buried in his desk, and then gave up composing completely for three years.  He intended to revise the work, but never got around to it, and the orchestral score eventually vanished.

After the composer’s death, the piece was reconstructed based on the individual instrumental scores (all of which had survived because Rachmaninov had forgotten to collect them and someone randomly stuffed them in a library where they sat for almost half a century) and enjoyed a bit of a renaissance – in fact, its US premiere by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra was part of the first complete symphony concert ever to be broadcast on live television.  It is a shame the composer never got around to revising the score: it has its brilliant and exciting moments, but these are connected by some rather dull bits which could have used some tightening.  Lazarev tried valiantly tonight, although a better orchestra might have helped.

Lazarev remains clearly very popular with the Moscow public, receiving prolonged and roaring applause.  He kept sneaking to the side of the stage to try to deflect the applause to the orchestra (the way a grade school conductor might, to indicate the audience should express its amazement that the children actually know how to hold their instruments – the Bolshoi Orchestra is not that bad, but given that it is the Bolshoi it really should sound much better than it does).  However, it was absolutely apparent that the audience was crying out for Lazarev and not for the orchestra.  Lazarev obliged everyone with an encore, something the Bolshoi Orchestra could not easily miss: the Adagio from Sleeping Beauty by Tschaikowsky.

Pokrovsky Chamber Opera

Schostakowitsch, The Nose

I saw Schostakowitsch’Nose at the Pokrovsky Chamber Opera tonight.  It had gone missing, you know?

Schostakowitsch wrote this peculiar opera in the 1920s, based on a story by Gogol.  For political reasons it never caught on and the Soviets destroyed most of the manuscripts.  Shortly before Schostakowitsch died, Boris Pokrovsky, the late great artistic director of the Bolshoi, found a surviving copy of the score and, together with conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky and with some input from the composer, produced a version, which has since toured the world and has now landed on the stage of the Chamber Opera which Pokrovsky founded after he was pushed out of the Bolshoi.

The plot concerns a nose which has left the face of a Russian bureaucrat in order to have a life of its own.  It will not even speak to the bureaucrat, since in the meantime it has received a promotion to a much higher rank.  No one else will speak to the bureaucrat either, since they consider it bad taste for someone to leave his home without wearing a nose.  Eventually, though, the bureaucrat does succeed in getting his nose back on his face.

A realistic staging would obviously not be possible.  So Pokrovsky elected to have a staging which allows the cast to act.  There was not much in the way of sets, but the stage directions provided enough detail and meant that a lot was taking place on stage.  If I spoke Russian better, I probably would have gotten more out of this production, but even I could appreciate the humor, which kept the bizarre tale moving at a good pace without ever deteriorating into farce.  Schostakowitsch set the opera to very eclectic music of no particular style, one of the reasons the Soviets did not react so positively to it the first time around in the 1920s, and Pokrovsky’s staging provided the necessary symbiosis.

The cast was adequate, and the Pokrovsky Opera trotted out yet another dour Soviet-looking conductor – this time, Vladimir Argonsky – who kept everything moving along together.

Gelikon Opera, Arbat Theater

Rimsky-Korsakov, Tsar’s Bride

Although seldom-performed, the Czar’s Bride by Rimsky-Korsakov is currently in the repertory of three different Moscow opera houses.  So I decided to take in my third version in a year, this time at the Gelikon Opera.  The verdict: the Novaya had the best overall musical production but an incomprehensible staging, the Bolshoi had a clear traditional staging but poor musical quality, and the Gelikon ended up somewhere in the middle.

The orchestra sounded a bit raw, and the pacing from conductor Kirill Tikhonov uneven at times, but the opera never dragged (unlike at the Bolshoi).  I think much of the Gelikon Opera had come down with illness, since no fewer than six of the cast were replaced – and not with the B or C cast, but with people whose names had to be literally written into the programs by pencil (I recognized one of the substitutes as a regular member of this company, but obviously tonight performing a role not in his current repertory).  Under these circumstances, the cast did fine, but nothing outstanding – however, when not singing solo but rather in ensemble they blended very well with each other.  Two of the best solo performances came, not surprisingly, from the regularly-scheduled cast: Andrey Bilegzhanin as Grigory Gryaznoy and Mikhail Guzhov as Sobakin.

The Gelikon’s temporary premises during the renovations of its theater remain inadequate.  Nevertheless, the simple but suggestive staging was, under these circumstances, sufficient.  Not many props are needed, so a lavish staging such as at the Bolshoi is not strictly necessary (and I still much prefer simple to silly – such as the staging at the Novaya that made the opera impossible to follow).  However, the director added a non-singing character – a bell-ringer – who started prancing around the stage during the overture for no apparent reason other than to distract the audience, and continued making odd appearances throughout.  Not only did this new character add nothing, but by doing his thing front and center the bell-ringer remained in focus and forced the actual plot to the background.  Indeed, it is telling that the bell-ringer got to take the final individual curtain call, as the supposed star of this production.  Why?