A Tale of Two Orchestras: the “other” NPR


Terrific review (more of a commentary, actually) by Bernard Holland in the New York Times the other day about the duelling Russian Orchestras currently touring the US – the Russian National Orchestra, (sometimes called the RNO), and the recently-constituted National Philharmonic of Russia, a/k/a the NPR. Common to both of them is violinist and conductor
Vladimir Spivakov. He used to lead the Russian National Orchestra until he had some sort of falling out with the management, so he persuaded the Russian government to start the “NPR” – although they originally called themselves the “Russian National Philharmonic” (RNP?) until the RNO objected. With me so far? (Sorta reminds me of the old Monty Python skit of the in the Life of Brian. Just to make things more confusing, Spivakov also heads the Moscow Virtuosi, a chamber-orchestra that features members from both groups, as well as other Russian ensembles.

Anyway, these days you’re as likely to see the RNO and the NPR outside of Moscow as you are in it; and both groups are spending days – weeks – on end chasing the American entertainment dollar. With – you guessed it – a mighty handful of Russian works with high-powered soloists. And their paths happened to overlap in New York earlier this week, prompting Holland’s commentareview: Tasting menu:

Every time you look up there is another Russian orchestra onstage. Russia’s newfound free-market economy and the resulting scramble for financial survival must be a shock to a lot of them. Evidently the National Philharmonic is in a cozier spot, having President

Vladimir V. Putin as its personal godfather. Still, export or die seems the motto for this parade of visitors, whose rivals seem not to be other international orchestras but one another. Getting together and comparing travel schedules might be helpful.When they come, we know what we are going to get: big Russian music conveyed by big Russian sound reinforced by oversized string sections. (Monday’s program listed 32 violins, but I thought I counted more.) Often attached to these events are Russian pianists or violinists of howitzerlike virtuosity. Tender foreign sensibilities are not used to such firepower.

Roedeo, inc. is a not-disinterested observer to all of this: I do a lot of the “concert previews” for the Washington Performing Arts Society‘s terrific subscription season. So I’m doing a lot of thinking about the “other” NPR’s concert at the Kennedy Center on Saturday. Despite the fact that the orchestra’s is designed to signal “the rebirth of the Russian post-reconstruction State,” the repertory for their US tour is almost exclusively limited to works that are at least half-a-century old: Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Shostakovich. The DC performance will also feature Van Cliburn Competition winner Olga Kern (pictured above) playing the same “Rocky 2” she’s been playing everywhere on this tour – and the Shostakovich 5th Symphony. I’m especially interested in hearing how the NPR plays the Shostakovich Symphony…the one the composer, in one of the most difficult years of his life, subtitled A Soviet Artist’s Practical Creative Reply to Just Criticism.’ Last time I heard this symphony was in Moscow, at one of the most emotionally-draining concerts I have ever witnessed: a Winter of 1990 appearance by Mstislav Rostropovich, conducting Washington’s own National Symphony Orchestra in a program that also included the Barber “Adagio for Strings,” the Death of Tybalt from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, “Aase’s Death” from Grieg’s Peer Gynt, and the Tchaikovsky “Pathetique” Symphony. As my Russian friends said, the entire concert had a “Tyema Smyert,” – theme of Death. But the playing – and atmosphere in the “Bolshoi Zahl” of the Moscow Conservatory was absolutely electric. Sony made a outstanding documentary (directed by new MET Opera chief Peter Gelb, among others) called Soldiers of Music about Rostropovich and the NSO’s Russian experience, and likewise released a now-out-of-print CD called “Rostropovich: Return to Russia.” Some of the best playing the Rostropovich-era NSO ever did on record, IMHO; but unfortunately the Shostakovich 5th was left off of the disc. If you’re a fan at all of Russian music – and of Cold War history, for that matter – both the DVD and CD are worth your attention. And Rostropovich turns 80 next week! Check back in and I’ll tell you how the concert turned out…