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MUSIC REVIEW : The Bolshoi Band Plays Hum-Along Hits

October 21, 1995|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Once upon a time, in the bad old days of cold wars and bury-you braggadocio, musical imports from Russia were rare and many-splendored things. The Soviet Union sent us only its best, and its best was very good indeed.

Now, the Iron Curtain has melted. In the process, visits by Russian ensembles have become commonplace. Nationalistic identities in the arts have blurred, and standards have plummeted.

Virtually anyone who can carry a passport and a fiddle wants to come a-calling in quest of international validation and dollars, not necessarily in that order. The reception isn't always hearty or profitable. Note, for instance, this week's last-minute cancellation of the tour by the St. Petersburg Symphony.

And note the strange case of the Bolshoi Symphony, which opened a two-night stint on Thursday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. The ads heralded the event as "an exclusive Los Angeles/Orange County presentation."

Although the instrumental ensemble from Moscow has appeared on the East Coast both in the pit and on the stage, the current engagements represent a West Coast debut. The repertory chosen may have avoided authentic Russian specialties--ironically, someone decided to save Tchaikovsky for the second program--but the agenda did concentrate on hum-along hits.

Still, the hall, which can accommodate up to 1,600, yawned with empty seats. Even a generous contingent of guests from local high schools couldn't fill the embarrassing voids.

Perhaps those who chose to stay away knew something. The Bolshoi, primarily an opera and ballet orchestra, represents a pool of some 300 players. It seemed unlikely on Thursday that many of the most experienced musicians were booked among the 104 on this tour. And then there was the awkward matter of leadership.

The redoubtable Alexander Lazarev had been announced as conductor. He disappeared from the management masthead in a broad-ranging artistic putsch last June. In his place came one Peter Feranec, 31, a citizen of Bratislava and, as such, the Bolshoi's first foreign music director.

He may be a baton genius, and the Bolshoi orchestra may be one of the world's finest. On this unhappy occasion, alas, he seemed like a calm, mildly efficient Kapellmeister ; and the orchestra sounded like a scrappy, not-so-little band. The acoustic of the Cerritos Center--damp and treble-heavy--didn't exactly accentuate the positive.

In the overture to Wagner's "Tannhauser," which opened the non-festivities, the choirs were oddly balanced, whiny winds and precarious brass confronting lean strings. One waited in vain for the vaunted Russian resonance. Worse, one waited in vain for sensuality and passion. Lethargic Wagner is an anachronism.

The orchestral frame remained stodgy in the centerpiece, Brahms' First Piano Concerto, which served as a potentially grateful vehicle for Boris Berezovsky. The 26-year-old Muscovite gave a virtuoso performance against the odds, broad in scope and sufficiently impetuous in spirit to make some technical mishaps unimportant.

Unfortunately, he had to contend with the blare of a particularly strident Steinway, and with the distraction of unduly raucous horns. The conductor's most basic concerns appeared to be beating time and meeting the pianist at the cadence.

Matters improved a bit, and not a moment too soon, with Sibelius' Second Symphony after intermission. The orchestra sounded more cohesive here, closer to Baltic terra cognita . Feranec sustained a reasonable facsimile of expressive urgency as the unison strings conveyed a welcome hint of the old Russian throb.

Perhaps this was a down payment.

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