Thursday, March 15, 2007

National Philharmonic of Russia Concert

My husband Michael and I went to a concert last night by the National Philharmonic of Russia with pianist Olga Kern that is part of their United States tour. I certainly understand why the International Observatory of Russia named a star after Vladimir Spivakov. It was a remarkable concert.

The concert made such an impact on me that this morning when I was making my 22-minute drive to work (I would normally listen to the radio) I spent much of the time thinking about the contour and structure of the big tune in the last movement of the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto. Of course I know the tune very well, but I have never been fascinated by it before. (You know it too, I'm sure--many people know it from the film "The Seven Year Itch" or as the once popular song "Full Moon and Empty Arms.") Last night's performance was the first live performance I have heard of the piece in probably 25 years, and most of the recordings (played too often on the radio) I have heard treat the melody as one huge cliché. This orchestra and this wonderful pianist treated the melody (and every other phrase and melody in the piece) as something rare and special, making it clear that having the opportunity to play it is as much of a treasure for the musicians as having the opportunity to hear it played so beautifully by the audience.

I also started thinking about the orchestral colors in the Shostakovitch 5th Symphony, a piece I also know very well. In last night's performance I heard things in the music I have never heard before. The orchestra's playing was a mixture of comfort and excitement. It was clear that all the musicians were comfortable and extremely happy to play with such a fine conductor, and a conductor who made it clear that he had a huge amount of respect for the orchestra. He was able to let the music move from total placidity to explosive excitement without getting in the way. His tempos were also right on, and he seemed to be able to work with shade and contour in the orchestra's sound. The experience was one of music, not of ego.

The concert protocol was interesting. The orchestra sat with Classical Period seating (first and second violins on the left and right of the conductor, cellos next to the first violins, basses behind them, and violas between the cellos and the seconds). The woodwind players had sounds that were very different from the American wind sounds I have gotten used to--not better, just different. There was less of a reedy core to the flute sound; the oboe and clarinet sounds were more alike in timbre than in American or European orchestras, and the bassoon sound was delicate and more like the French "bassoon" than the German "faggot." I really enjoyed hearing these timbral differences. For me the timbral difference in an orchestra's wind section works like regional differences in food preparation, and this was a rare opportunity to hear a set of new musical spices "waking up" familiar musical dishes.

Also, there was no real tuning ritual--everyone tuned backstage. Before the concert the stage was empty, except for cellos and basses resting (or maybe lounging) belly up on their chairs. The musicians entered like chamber musicians, and the concertmaster entered the stage with everyone else. The audience didn't quite know what to do: they began clapping, but the number of musicians entering the stage (more than 100) made it difficult to keep clapping until the last musician was on stage.

I really did not know what to expect from this concert. I had heard from Russian friends that after the government stopped supporting music, life was very difficult for musicians. Orchestras folded, and a lot of musicians were out of work. I'm glad that the Russian government is supporting music again. Music itself has nothing to do with politics, but a good lesson that this country might learn from this tour is how much a little government support can do for music.

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