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O.C. MUSIC / CHRIS PASLES : Borodin Ensemble a Lesson in Longevity

January 12, 1994|CHRIS PASLES

The Borodin String Quartet is just one year away from celebrating its 50th anniversary, a record for longevity matched by few other chamber-music ensembles. But like most veteran groups, it has gone through changes in personnel to survive this long.

"We were students and very young," when it was started, recalled cellist Valentin Berlinsky recently, speaking through a translator from Montreal, where the quartet is playing before coming to Orange County for a concert Saturday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

"We had dreams to be soloists, to start solo careers, but we really loved quartets, too."

Berlinsky, 68, and violist Dmitri Shebalin, 63, are the remaining members of the original quartet, formed in 1945 at the Moscow Conservatory of Music. Violinists Andrei Abramenkov, 58, and Mikhail Kopelman ("the baby, at 45") joined in the '70s.

The changes meant changes in musical interpretation, too. But Berlinsky was reluctant to get into details. "This is a long conversation," he said. "You could write a book on this, the changes and their impact.

"Every quartet is a very little group, and it is very complicated to work together. If someone is conducting a big orchestra and has his own interpretation, all the soloists have to follow his interpretation.

"In a quartet, the parts are much more sophisticated and complicated than in an orchestra. Sometimes we don't come to a certain decision right away. We discuss it, play it. But our final goal is to find a constant for everybody. That's what we try to achieve."

The quartet will play works by Brahms and Tchaikovsky locally, as part of the chamber-music series sponsored by the Laguna Chamber Music Society and the Orange County Philharmonic Society.

The two works--Tchaikovsky's String Quartet No. 3 and Brahms' String Quartet No. 3--were composed in the same year: 1876. Brahms' quartet--his last, written at the same time as his First Symphony--has gone into the standard repertory. But Tchaikovsky's, which is regarded by some critics a patchwork affair, has not.

Still, the musicians "feel very close to Tchaikovsky," although they remain adamantly "against the idea of talking about music. We really prefer to perform and the audience to hear the music."

Local audiences may be more familiar with the quartet's eminent interpretations of the music of Shostakovich. The musicians played all 15 of his quartets at Ambassador Auditorium in 1988 and 1990. This year, Berlinsky said, they will play the cycle six times "around the world," including the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor at the end of the month, and then in Lisbon, Frankfurt and London, among other places.

"Emotionally, it's very difficult," he said, "not only for the quartet, but for the public. His music is heavy and difficult, but at same time, there is a lot of emotional and psychological variety in it. But I want to make a parallel. It's the same with all the great composers--Beethoven, Schubert, Bartok. It's emotionally very difficult to play cycles of all their quartets."

The four musicians live in Moscow and see each other "every day. But actually, even though we basically live in Moscow, we spend most of our lives in hotels around the world," Berlinsky said. They play 100 concerts a year, spending "something like eight months outside (Russia). Sometimes our wives come with us."

*

For them, the political transformation in the former Soviet Union--from communism to efforts at a free-market economy--has not been particularly difficult because "we can have a contract with the West and earn (hard) currency. . . .

"There are not many people like that. We are a minority. The process of change has been so painful for Russians because the economy was destroyed. There was no economy. It's a very painful process and needs a lot of time."

The painful process, they said, explains the political emergence of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party. Zhirinovsky has become notorious for making anti-Western statements and for advocating expanding Russia's borders.

"The majority of people who voted for Zhirinovsky," said Berlinsky, "did not vote for him because they love him but because they disagree with the economic reforms by the government. This is their reaction. They are looking for a way to make their lives easier.

"In a deep crisis, in a political situation such as exists right now, which is going on not only in Russia, but elsewhere, people like Zhirinovsky appear, historically. In similar situations, such a figure would appear in a crisis.

"But the majority of intellectual people--most of our friends, musicians, artists, intellectual people, they are not supporters of Zhirinovsky. This is some kind of natural process. Now, it is terribly difficult for people. That was the mistake made by the reformers. Now they're going to pay for it."

* The Borodin String Quartet will play music by Tchaikovsky and Brahms on Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. Presented by the Laguna Chamber Music Society and the Orange County Philharmonic Society. $12.50 to $25. (714) 854-4646.

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