Critics and Clapping


Woke up this morning thinking about the old saw, attributed to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius to “Pay no attention to what the critics say; there has never been set up a statue in honor of a critic.” (Though actually Alex Ross went out and found three not long ago….)

Anyway. The Sibelius quote comes to mind as I process a couple of unusually churlish reviews of the concert I blogged about a few days ago – the DC debut of the National Philharmonic of Russia, a/k/a the “other” NPR. First, Robert Battey in the Monday (3/26) Washington Post griped that “Woodwind and brass entries were often slightly staggered. The percussion missed cues. The strings were energetic but displayed little homogeneity, either in vibrato or bowing, with a concertmaster who appeared past his prime. The NPR, in short, lacks refinement.” But that was more charitable than what Jens Laurson had to say in the generally-fine ionarts blog: he essentially said phooey and left at intermission.

Which is too bad, since he missed – and IMHO the Post reviewer was not of a mind to hear – an absolutely riveting performance of the Shostakovich 5th Symphony. Comparing what I heard and they wrote, in both cases I couldn’t help but feel the reviews were mostly written before the orchestra had played a note; one seeing the whole thing in the dark context of Putin-as-Stalin and the revival of Soviet-style “Russian propaganda,” the other, once you parsed the review a bit, clearly bothered by a conductor’s interpretation of a piece (the Shostakovich symphony) that differed from his own:

“But the pith of the conductor’s job in this sprawling work lies in subtler tasks — building and releasing tension on large time scales, creating internal episodes and relating them to the whole. Shostakovich’s incessant dactylic rhythms often just sat there, and Spivakov brought none of Mstislav Rostropovich’s anguish to the Largo (let alone Leonard Bernstein’s). Overall, a long afternoon.”

Well. I didn’t even know that use of the word “dactylic” was permitted in a family newspaper! I for one found the (other) NPR’s take on the Shostakovich 5th was pretty compelling — even thinking to myself at one point about what a coherent statement Spivakov and the orchestra were making, and I could feel the audience with them the whole way (noticeable lack of coughing and fidgeting). But no, not the way that Rostropovich would conduct it. Hey – I get that. I grew up with an LP by Istvan Kertesz conducting the Dvorak “New World” Symphony and I remember being shocked the first time I heard it being conducted “differently” than that classic recording.

I think it’s connected, in fact, to what Washpost columnist Richard Cohen was calling “emotional truth,” what often veers significantly away from intellectual truth. Cohen was connecting a key moment in his life when he was inspired to become a writer to a turning point in candidate Barack Obama‘s young life that made him keenly aware of the consequence of skin color for the very first time. Only maybe it didn’t happen. I think a lot of our musical memories (and thus lifetime musical convictions) are formed the same way:

“Indeed, the memory of the event/non-event is so firmly planted in Obama’s mind that it seems to have become an emotional truth for him, far more powerful than an intellectual truth. Two and two are four. That’s an intellectual truth for you. But America is a uniquely great country. That’s an emotional truth, and I’m far more likely to die for the latter than the former. So, I suspect, are you.”

My own emotional truth concerns Penny and her father. Years later, when I reconnected with Penny, I mentioned that day on the porch and how much it meant to me. No such porch, she told me. I insisted otherwise and did not relent until she sent me a picture of the home. No porch. Still . . . I like the story my way. In Obama’s case — and maybe my own — there might be something more than foggy memory at work.

I think so. So my crystalline-at-this-point memory was that I was in a shared experience in a sold-out Kennedy Center Concert Hall where I witnessed 108 musicians creating a remarkable performance that required them to think and act as one. And we stomped and hooted and cheered. But I think what will linger the most in my mind is observing the genuine affection and mutual respect in this orchestra. (Check out the backstage photo from their performance in Boston!) When it came time for bows, Vladimir Spivakov asked first the principle players to stand – the French horn, the clarinet, the trumpet, and so on. And to a man, and woman – they did something I have never seen an orchestra of professionals do before….they clapped back. For Spivakov, for their fellow performers, for the audience. A remarkable contrast to the general slouch/wisecracking/ignoring the audience that infects a lot of orchestras at curtain-call time. It was a remarkable and genuinely moving gesture.

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…