Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra (Moscow Radio), Royal Festival Hall (London)

Tschaikowsky, Schostakowitsch, Elgar

I popped down to London to hear the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Fedoseyev perform in the Royal Festival Hall.  With this team, it is always a treat.  Fedoseyev has led the orchestra for forty years as of this year, so it is very much his instrument.

The instrument that opened the concert, though, belonged to violinist Vadim Repin.  Repin does not have a big tone, but he does have a beautiful one.  Fedoseyev had the orchestra provide him appropriately delicate backing in the Tschaikowsky Violin Concerto, not too robust as to overwhelm him.  Fedoseyev painted an overall picture using pastels rather than bold colors, colorful yet restrained.  Tschaikowsky might have appreciated more energy, however.

Where the Tschaikowsky Violin Concerto was light and sweet, the Schostakowitsch Symphony #8 after the intermission was dark and bitter.  I heard this symphony with the Tonkünstler a month ago, but it forms a more usual part of this orchestra’s repertory, and they knew how to dig into the soul.  The solo lines scattered among the industrialized music representing the faceless Soviet regime soared with great beauty.  Around them sounded devastation, Russia in rubble and its people under oppression.

The concert promoted the opening of the 2014 UK-Russia Year of Culture, so the orchestra knew it had to warm the home crowd with some Elgar encores.  A strongly sentimental Nimrod from the Enigma Variations showed they could communicate the message.  The Pomp and Circumstance March #1 which concluded the set came across as a tad regimented and less academic, but nevertheless roused the crowd.  In between came a encore I did not recognize, which sounded like someone’s quite fun attempt at imitating Spanish music.  The audience reacted delightedly to the encores – I am not sure they understood the Russian works, however.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Schubert, Adams, Lutosławski, Brahms, Britten, Bernstein

The Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra performed a Sunday afternoon light concert of symphonic dances under the baton of Dmitry Liss, which ran through a number of styles: Six German Dances by Franz Schubert (as orchestrated by Anton Webern), the Chairman’s Dance from Nixon in China by John Adams, Five Dance Preludes for Clarinet and Orchestra by Witold Lutosławski (with Vladimir Permyakov on Clarinet), Hungarian Dance Nr. 6 by Johannes Brahms, the Musical Evening Suite by Benjamin Britten (based on Rossini), and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein.

Liss kept the afternoon light and bouncy.  This worked best for the Brahms, with an almost-Hungarian lilt, and for the Bernstein, which Liss made sound like Bernstein had composed it under the influence of Stravinsky (maybe he did…?).  It worked less well for the Adams dance, which had a lot of movement and went absolutely nowhere, a typically poor effort by that ridiculously over-hyped composer.

After coffee and a sandwich, I migrated over to the Stanisklavsky.

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.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Respighi, Bartok, Ravel, Liszt

An afternoon concert of lighter music at the Tschaikowsky Hall, with the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra under Dyenis Lotoyev.

The concert opened with Respighi’s Suite #1 of Ancient Dances and Airs.  I do not believe that this orchestra often plays music composed before the mid-19th century, and although Respighi wrote this in the 20th century, he based it on Renaissance music.  The orchestra seemed a little lost as a result.  Much of this I can directly attribute to the harpsichordist, who seemed incapable of playing in time, and who must have distracted the rest of the orchestra.  The performance greatly improved in the movements with limited harpsichord, which meant that the orchestra could capture the 20th-century sonorities Respighi used to enhance the music.

Bartok’Dance Suite followed, and here the orchestra was more at home.  Likewise for the piece following the intermission: Ravel’s Noble and Sentimental Waltzes.  I do not listen to much Ravel, since I consider him excessively dull.  But he was good at orchestration, although not as great at it as his reputation.  Both the Bartok and the Ravel pieces, with lots of solo lines emerging from lush scoring, allowed this orchestra to showcase its skilled instrumentality.  This orchestra was formerly known as the USSR State Radio-Television Orchestra, and has retained its standards under its Principal Conductor Vladimir Fedoseyev (who has been at the helm since 1974).  He turns 80 next year and is slowing down, so it will be curious to see who takes over this fine ensemble.

The concert concluded with Liszt’Mephisto Waltz #1, which was more like a scheduled encore than a natural follow-on.  Still nice to hear this orchestra get enthusiastic.

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.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Martinů, Dvořak

It may surprise people that the main reason I attended tonight’s concert of the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra in the Tschaikowsky Hall came from a desire to hear some works by Bohuslav Martinů, since his music does not receive much play.

Until the fall of the Soviet Union, this orchestra was known as the Large Symphony Orchestra of the Soviet Radio.  On the podium tonight was Gintaras Rinkevičius, a Soviet-trained Lithuanian, whom my mother might describe as a “tall glass of water.”  In fact, he should not have conducted from a podium: in order to remain in the sight-lines of the orchestra, he had to hunch over rather severely; whenever he forgot to hunch, I think the orchestra members may have strained their necks looking up for his cues.  However, he had a clear technique and abundant energy.

The first half of the concert contained three works by Martinů composed in 1932-33, which made a clear progression.  The Serenade #2 for Strings opened the concert, and in it Martinů used an eighteenth-century classical style with just a hint of update.  The next work, the Serenade #3 for Oboe, Clarinet, and Strings was also remarkably classical in form (although in only two self-contained movements) but had sufficient dissonance to give it a mean edge and useful contrasts.  The third work in the progression, the Concerto for Trio and String Orchestra was clearly a child of the twentieth century, with the competing tonal but dissonant lines, often performed by the trio, leading naturally to soaring harmonic chorales in the orchestra.

After the intermission came the more-known Symphony #8 by Antonín Dvořák.  The orchestra sounded great, and Rinkevičius certainly drew out the energy of the piece, but in his efforts to keep it crisp he may have produced technique that came across as too abrupt, almost starting-and-stopping between each phrase.

The concert tonight was surprisingly crowded, although I think because they let all the little old ladies out of the nursing home.  They clapped between every movement (audiences in Moscow usually know better).  And they hacked out several lungs during the first half of the concert, so that I think many of them did not survive until the second half, when many seats were suddenly vacant and the coughing stopped.  Either that or the sick old ladies were all Martinů fans who hate Dvořák.