Moscow Symphony Orchestra, Moscow Conservatory

Mozart, Beethoven

My final concert in the Moscow Conservatory.  I tried desperately to get tickets for another concert a week later, but those were impossible to come by in a typically Russian sort of way (officially they had been on sale for a month, but the box office claimed to know nothing and calling “upstairs” also produced no information).  So this was it.

This concert was a bait-and-switch.  It was supposed to conclude with Mahler’s 5th, but a couple of days ago new posters went up showing Beethoven’s 6th.  The pre-printed programs still indicated Mahler.  No idea what caused the late change and will not speculate.

The concert opened with Mozart, in the form of the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro and the Piano Concerto #20.  The Moscow Symphony Orchestra under the Dutchman Arthur Arnold, the Orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor, kept things light.  At the keyboard, Nikita Mndoyants, a 22-year-old recent graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, showed proficiency.  In this hall, it is easy to let the notes waft out over the audience.  Of course, it is also easy to hear any errors.  What we got was a solid performance, with a nice blend of orchestra and piano.  While nothing special, the performance was clean and clear.

For the Beethoven, Arnold took a more robust approach.  The strings may have taken it too far, producing a strong tone but lacking in fluidity.  On the other hand, the woodwinds, given the opportunity by Beethoven to imitate birds, soared.  The music swelled into the storm movement, and the finale emerged triumphant.

In all, a worthwhile evening spent in a wonderful hall with solid performances of beautiful music.  I would not have minded staying another hour to hear the Mahler, although perhaps it was too much to ask of the orchestra.

Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Moscow Conservatory

Stravinsky, Chausson, Ravel, Rachmaninov

I attended an unplanned concert at the Moscow Conservatory – the 75th Anniversary Concert of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra.  When I was deciding what concerts interested me this month, this concert had a different program and conductor, and so I had marked it off the list.  But it seems that all that changed while I was away from Moscow.  I swung by the afternoon before the concert to see if any tickets would be available, and there were a few left up in the top level of the second balcony (but the hall has great acoustics, so this only meant it was hard to see the orchestra, but I could hear just fine).

This is the orchestra Yevgeny Svetlanov led for 35 years before he was fired in 2000 (after Putin came in), when the Ministry of Culture suddenly questioned his patriotism.  Mark Gorenstein, an impossibly dull Soviet wand-waver, was appointed to replace him.  The Orchestra musicians have been miserable ever since (but stay because the orchestra pays relatively very well for Russia).  Finally this Summer the musicians got up the courage to demand that Gorenstein be fired.  When this did not happen, they simply refused to show up for rehearsals this Fall, and all of their concerts this season have been canceled one-by-one as a result.  Two weeks ago, while I was away, Gorenstein got the axe and the young and dynamic Vladimir Jurowski was appointed in his place effective immediately.  Today was Jurowski’s first appearance with the orchestra in his new position.

The program opened with Stravinsky’Firebird Suite.  This is still the most Russian-sounding of orchestras, and the flagship of the state orchestra system, so it was fitting to open the anniversary concert with a showpiece.  Jurowski made the most of it, generating excitement with each scene in the suite.  If he had added the entire ballet as an encore, no one in this audience (nor in the orchestra) would have objected.  I have a soft-spot for this piece, since I think it was the first recording I ever owned as a child (with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony Orchestra – a birthday present from my sister).  Hearing it fresh tonight, with a fully-charged orchestra and conductor happy to be there, made me remember the joy and excitement of putting on that record for the first time way back in my childhood.

After this thrilling start, the concert unfortunately shifted to French composers.  The choice for the next two pieces was curious, since they certainly do not figure in the core repertory for this orchestra, nor should they figure in the core repertory for any orchestra.  While, starting in the mid-19th Century, Russia discovered classical music and has since produced enormous quantities of exciting material (possibly the only civilized thing the Russians do produce), France has inexplicably seemed incapable of having any composer other than Berlioz (whom the French ridiculed for his admiration of Beethoven) capable of consistently producing music of any reasonable quality.  The French never cease to amaze me just how dull the music is that they write – and I keep listening to new pieces just hoping something will come along to break the monotony, but it never does.

So tonight we had two pieces for violin and orchestra: the Poem for Violin and Orchestra by Ernest Chausson and the Gypsy Concert Rhapsody by Maurice Ravel.  Julia Fischer was the soloist.  Try as she, Jurowski, and the orchestra might, nothing they could do could bring these works to life.  And boy did they try.  Technically, they all played very well.  Fischer proved very adept.  The audience dozed, and awoke at the end of each piece to give a polite golf-tournament-style applause most notable for its contrast with the roaring applause which had greeted the Stravinsky.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned to Russian music with Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.  These are less dance music and more somewhat-eccentric post-Scriabin-esque studies in orchestral color that Rachmaninov wrote shortly before he died.  Jurowski and the orchestra kept the movements moving along, exploring their tones and rhythms until the end of the third dance, which sounded like it represented the composer taking a hop, skip, and a jump into the grave.  Never has the Dies Irae sounded so whimsical.  Jurowski applauded his new orchestra, the orchestra applauded Jurowski, and the audience applauded both.  This applause went on for a while.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Moscow Conservatory

Kancheli, Ledenëv, Mahler

It is so wonderful to have the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory open again after it had been closed for an entire year.  The acoustics may be second only to the Tonhalle in Zurich.  I went back for my second concert since it reopened, to hear the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra under its longtime music director Vladimir Fedoseyev.

The first half of the concert featured two recently-composed pieces I knew nothing about.  I wanted to know more, but for some reason understood only by Russians, who must be used to this nonsense, they hid the programs.  I kept trying to buy a program from the ushers (the normal way to get a program in this hall), but the ushers kept sending me to other ushers around and around in circles.  I saw a small handful of people who obviously managed to convince someone to sell them a program, but it really seemed like someone must have been hoarding them.  So I heard the first half of the concert without a program, and then set out during the intermission determined to find one.  Eventually, climbing up to the upper balcony, I found one usher sitting on a bench with a pile of programs hidden under her coat.  She reluctantly sold me one (for a discount price of 30 Rubles – usually they cost 50 Rubles).  I have no good explanation for why it was so much trouble to get a program for this concert, but I don’t have a good explanation for a lot of what goes on in this country.

The concert opened with the world premiere of “Last Flight” (Three Symphonic Fragments) by Roman Ledenëv, a professor of music theory at the Conservatory who was present in the audience.  According to the program, he wrote the piece in 2009 in memory of a colleague who had died in a plane crash.  The piece started out sounding like it might be atonal, but gradually the bits and pieces of the orchestra fell into place together to create a mood similar to a Mahler adagio – sort of like a mirror un-shattering, with the pieces rising up off the floor and reassembling on the wall.  Scored for string orchestra and percussion, the balance seemed (unsurprisingly, perhaps, given where Ledenëv teaches) designed for this very hall, with waves of lush strings accented by gentle percussion rolling over the audience.

The next piece was a bit of a mystery, which finally getting a program only partly resolved.  Gia Kancheli is a Georgian composer who left his country during the brutal Civil War, and eventually settled in Belgium.  “Do Not Be Sad” (which he calls a vocal-symphonic suite for baritone and orchestra) may not have made me sad, but it did make me thoroughly confused.  Kancheli is normally known for his sonorous post-romantic tone poetry.  This seemed like a parody of his own style, but was clearly supposed to be taken seriously.

The baritone started out singing in what I thought was Russian.  Then it seemed to be Russian-accented English.  As I tried desperately to understand the words, I clearly heard German.  I thought I caught some other languages as well.  These seemed to be coming in isolated phrases, not necessarily connected to each other.  Since I could not decipher what the piece was about from the words, which were by this point distracting me more than anything, I tuned out the words and started paying closer attention to the music.  This made about as much sense as the words.  Phrases changing in tempo, volume, mood, and instrumentation, all over the place, having little to do with each other.  Several times, the piece seemed to have reached a climax, and Fedoseyev lowered his baton, but the music continued.  When the piece actually did end, eventually, it did so in mid-phrase without resolution.

Getting the program only helped a little.  Kancheli apparently wrote the piece after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, trying to make sense of everything.  I’m not sure he succeeded.  Baritone Egils Silins tried his best, with a very dramatic reading.  The orchestra also sounded good, at least.

After the intermission, I did not require a program for Mahler’s 1st.  As I have said before, I like the way Russian orchestras sound when they play Mahler, since they give it an edge that accentuates the angst.  That said, I think the 1st Symphony is less suited to this sort of sound, since it is perhaps the most cheerful of his works.  Nevertheless, Mahler being Mahler, a degree of tension must exist, and the Russian sound brings it out.  Clearly, however, this orchestra was less-familiar with the work, as Fedoseyev (who spent some time as principal conductor of the Vienna Symphony) must surely know it.  As a result, Fedoseyev took a more precise approach, allowing the orchestra to be careful, which may have broken up some of the lines in return for actually getting the music out.  Nevertheless, the orchestra often sounded unsure.

Where this performance came off best, however, were during the opening of the third movement – with its slow crescendo as the orchestra plays a mutilated minor-key Frere Jacques, which in this performance slowly filled the hall and almost snuck up on the listener – and the final movement.  In the final movement, Fedoseyev accented the streaking strings and the twisted woodwinds over the brash brass, but then introduced an apocalyptic percussion.

That said, perhaps the only way to make Mahler’s 1st work using a Russian sound would be to emulate Kirill Kondrashin, the conductor who more than anyone introduced Mahler’s music to Russia.  I have a recording of Kondrashin leading this symphony, where he does get the right amount of angst and foreboding behind Mahler’s lilting melodies.  Of course, Kondrashin’s career also ended with a performance of Mahler’s 1st, which resulted in his death from a heart attack.  So, I suppose, no, we do not want anyone else to go that route.

Russian Staatskapelle, Moscow Conservatory

Taneyev, Scriabin

My first concert back in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, which has reopened after being closed for renovations since June 2010.  This hall has some of the best acoustics in the world, and I am pleased to confirm that the renovations did not damage the sound.  After so many concerts during the interim in the Stalinist Tschaikowsky Hall, it is nice to be back.

Valery Polyansky and his Russian Staatskapelle presented a somewhat idiosyncratic program of music by Sergey Taneyev and Aleksandr Skryabin.

The Staatskapelle chorus began with five a capella pieces selected from a series of Taneyev choral songs setting poems by Yakov Polonsky and dedicated to the memory of Nikolai Rubinstein, the founder of the Moscow Conservatory and younger brother of the composer Anton Rubinstein, who founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory.  It may be a tad ironic that Russia’s two leading music schools were founded by Jews, and that, despite periodic purges, Jews have continued to play a disproportionate role in Russian musical life.

The Taneyev a capella works themselves were uninteresting.  However, Taneyev was a master of counterpoint, and hearing this talented chorus sing his exquisite harmonies in the soaring acoustics of the Moscow Conservatory made for a rich experience.

These pieces also did well to set up the mood for what followed.  The devastatingly black performance of Taneyev’s John of Damascus – described by the composer as a “Russian Requiem” – moved me to tears.  Polyansky and his team produced probably the best performance of any single work I have heard all year.

I did not think they could top this after the intermission, but I nevertheless returned to my seat.  The chorus dismissed for the night, only the orchestra remained, and – as I have noted before – Polyansky’s orchestra is far inferior to his chorus.  But in this hall, with this mood, they rose to the occasion.  Although sometimes muddy, they performed Skryabin’s third symphony, the “Divine Poem,” with great passion.  Skryabin believed that musical notes represented visual colors, and Polyansky and his Staatskapelle Orchestra did their best to display them, helped by the glowing – and freshly-painted – Conservatory Hall.

Russian National Orchestra, Moscow Conservatory

Lyadov, Cherepnin, Scriabin

Zany 20th Century Russian music tonight at the Conservatory. This is not a concert you would be likely to hear in the West:

Four tone poems by Anatoly Lyadov (Baba YagaThe Enchanted Lake, Kikimora, and From the Apocalypse), one by Nikolai Cherepnin (Enchanted Kingdom), and the 1st Symphony of Aleksandr Skryabin.

Brilliant playing by the Russian National Orchestra under Mikhail Pletnëv.

Russische Staatskapelle, Moscow Conservatory

Mendelssohn, Mahler

The orchestra’s name doesn’t translate into English very well, but does translate into familiar German. Here it was conducted by its chief conductor, Valery Polyansky, who was quite good (first saw him in March conducting the Conservatory Orchestra for Verdi’s Requiem).

He had the audience’s undivided attention thanks to the flamboyantly gay announcer who trotted out on stage to read the program (the Conservatory does not seem to do this at every concert like the Tscahikowsky Hall, but does do it sometimes – not this particular flamboyant announcer, just some announcer to read the program aloud; mostly they are not remotely flamboyant). This guy stared down someone on the balcony whose mobile phone went off and ordered him to turn it off because it was rude. Needless to say, everyone else in the audience who had not been bothered to turn off their phones also did so at this point. Then he stopped talking and glared at anyone who dared shuffle in their seats, and waited for them to settle down before continuing to state the program. Actually, maybe they should get this guy to come out to read the program for every concert – I don’t remember the last time I saw an audience behave so well.

Anyway, on to the music:

The concert opened with Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Violin and Piano. The violin soloist, Aleksandr Rozhdestvensky (who may possibly be the son of conductor Gennady R. – certainly about the right age), was supposed to have been the soloist a week and a half ago with the Bolshoi Orchestra, when I believe he was stuck elsewhere by volcanic ash. So I now got to hear him. He is good, but uses too much vibrato and so his tone was a bit over-sweet (but much better than the violinist who replaced him at the Bolshoi Orchestra concert). The pianist was Vladimir Ovchinnikov, who was also very good. The Mendelssohn is a pleasant piece, but there is not much more to say about it.

After the intermission (and reappearance by the announcer to ensure order) came the reason I went to the concert: Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. There is something about the way Russian orchestras perform Mahler – it has to do with the Russian tradition of playing wind instruments, which gives them a different timbre than in the West, and which works to put extra edge on Mahler’s angst. I think it works better on Symphonies 4 and later, but it is OK for the first three.

It was a rousing performance. Polyansky obviously has a good feel for Mahler. I liked his conducting. The orchestra was far from flawless, but did put effort into it. The chorus was also in full form. The soloists were nothing special, though: the mezzo, Lyudmila Kuznetsova, had a embarrassingly thick Russian accent in her German, and the soprano, Yelena Yevseyeva, although better, was hard for me to take seriously because she obviously shared a make-up kit with the announcer, and over-applied the make-up as much as he had.

Moscow Chamber Orchestra “Musica Viva,” Moscow Conservatory

Pergolesi, La Serva Padrona; Stravinsky, Pulcinella

What fun!

The first half of the program consisted of Pergolesi’s short comic opera La Serva Padrona, paired after the break with Stravinksy’Pulcinella (complete score), which was of course inspired by Pergolesi (or, as we now know, inspired by what he thought was Pergolesi, which in fact was not by Pergolesi but itself inspired by the early Classical composer, so it could be said that Stravinsky’s work was inspired by music inspired by music by Pergolesi).

Conductor Aleksandr Rudin understood the difference – he conducted the Pergolesi from the harpsichord with true classical style and feel. For the Stravinsky, he comprehended what Stravinsky was trying to accomplish: not to write early 18th-Century music in the 20th Century, but rather to update that older music using more modern techniques and compositional developments. Rudin knew how to emphasize the edge Stravinsky gave to the music, and to draw out the contrasts and modern harmonies.

The soloists also got into the spirit. Their voices would probably not fill a proper-sized opera house, but in the Conservatory (even the Large Hall) with a chamber orchestra, they were full enough.  Wolf-Matthias Friedrich (bass) especially stood out with his good humor and clear (albeit Germanic) diction.  Olivia Vermeulen (mezzo) and Stanislav Mostovoy (tenor) sang the other roles with gusto.

Bolshoi Opera Orchestra, Moscow Conservatory

Wagner, Beethoven, Strauss

The conductor (Gennady Rozhdestvensky) and soloist (Aleksandr Rozhdestvensky) did not make it (I presume they are stuck somewhere because of the volcanic ash which has shut down most air traffic in Europe), so the concert was not as advertised.

Mikhail Granovsky, a youngish (30s?) conductor, took over the podium.

The concert started with the Overture to LiebesverbotWagner’s early opera. The Bolshoi Orchestra strings sounded like mush, as though someone miked them and turned up the speaker volume too high. Despite that, the winds actually overpowered them anyway. But instead of a balanced sound, I got to hear new secondary and internal lines in the music, and so at least I learned new parts of this piece. I just kept having to deal with the uncomfortable noise coming from the strings.

We then got two Beethoven romances for violin and orchestra. The soloist was Mikhail Tsinman, who teaches violin at the Conservatory. He took a while to get into tune. Certainly had not gotten there before the end of the first romance. By the second romance he wasn’t so bad. If I ever hear him perform again, however, I will remember to arrive late to give him time to get his act together.

After the intermission came the Simfonia Domestica by Richard Strauss. This was worth sticking around for. Granovsky had the orchestra under control for this piece. The strings were still a bit mushy, but he managed to de-emphasise them sufficiently. The winds (both woodwinds and brass) produced sumptuous sounds. A worthy performance.