Soviet violinist and conductor Vladimir Spivakov is bullish on glasnost .
"In the Soviet Union now, people can feel like they are people," he said in Russian by phone from Clearwater, Fla., where he was preparing for an evening concert with his Moscow Virtuosi.
"Each of us can feel like an individual, and we can believe again that history is made by individuals--not individuals by history. It all makes me very happy."
The picture was not so rosy back in 1980, when the Moscow Virtuosi were first scheduled to make their U. S. debut. In the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, that appearance--along with many others by Soviet performers--was canceled.
But with Mikhail S. Gorbachev coming to power as Soviet leader and the signing of a new Soviet-American cultural exchange agreement in late 1985, the situation has improved dramatically. So much so that the Moscow Virtuosi are finally making that first American tour, with stops at the Orange County Performing Arts Center tonight and Ambassador Auditorium on Thursday.
Even Spivakov, a veteran of many stages, has been surprised by the feverish reception his ensemble has encountered here. The crowd that assembled in New York's Avery Fisher Hall for the first concert of the tour demanded seven encores.
"I think audiences here have missed our performers," said Spivakov with obvious pleasure.
This is hardly Spivakov's first visit to America. His successful solo debut in New York in 1975 led to regular appearances here, and even to his international conducting debut with the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival in 1979.
That same year, he founded the Moscow Virtuosi, a 27-member chamber orchestra whose home is the Bolshoi Hall of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory.
"I had wanted to create this ensemble for a long time," he explained. "I love chamber musicians and my friends. I get lonely without them. I chose all the players myself--well, actually, we chose each other.
"Each one of them belongs to the creme de la creme . Among them are some of the most talented students of teachers like David Oistrakh and Rostropovich."
Spivakov, now 42, was himself a second-place prize winner in the Tchaikovsky Competition.
With Spivakov acting as conductor and music director, the Moscow Virtuosi give about 120 concerts each year--about half of them in the Soviet Union.
"We have a very large repertory," Spivakov said. "One or two concerts cannot begin to show its range. One of our programs includes 'The Unanswered Question' by Charles Ives, who is very popular among Soviet musicians." The ensemble also performs music by contemporary Soviet composers; Spivakov thinks Alfred Shnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina and Edison Denisov are, for the moment at least, the most significant.
At the Orange County Center, the program will feature Mozart (Symphony No. 15 and the Sinfonia Concertante) and Tchaikovsky (Serenade for Strings). "I think that's a good combination, because you know for Tchaikovsky, Mozart was God."
Along with the Tchaikovsky and Bach's Concerto for violin and oboe, the Ambassador concert will provide an object lesson in Soviet-American cultural exchange. American trumpeter Stephen Burns will join prize-winning Soviet pianist Vladimir Krainev in Shostakovich's Concerto No. 1. Spivakov discovered the 25-year-old Burns while the trumpeter was performing in Finland.
Unfortunately, neither program includes the sort of offbeat multimedia projects in which Spivakov and his adventurous ensemble like to dabble back home in Moscow. At the opening of the first Soviet exhibition devoted to the works of Russian-born artist Marc Chagall in a Moscow museum last month, the Moscow Virtuosi performed "A Musical Portrait of Chagall" assembled by Spivakov.
It juxtaposed Prokofiev's "Overture on Hebrew Themes" with music by Ravel and Stravinsky.
"The fates of Stravinsky and Chagall were very similar," Spivakov observed. "And in his later years, Chagall turned to mosaics and stained glass, which to my mind are very close in their effects to music."
Visiting galleries and museums is one of Spivakov's favorite pastimes when he's not practicing or conducting. He also tries to get to the theater often. In the evening, however, he sets aside time to spend with his 3-year-old daughter ("She doesn't play anything yet"), and reads for at least an hour before retiring.
"There is so much of interest appearing in our literature now, including many revelations about the Stalin era."
But the bulk of Spivakov's day is spent with music. He works with a few violin students at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, and rehearses with the Moscow Virtuosi every weekday right after breakfast.
"It's not like here, with your strict union rules. We work for as long as it takes to get it right."