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.

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