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Sounds Like Freedom

The Russian National Orchestra performs as it wishes and raises money (mostly in the West).

April 05, 1998|Greg Sandow | Greg Sandow writes about classical music for the Wall Street Journal and other publications

NEW YORK — Mikhail Pletnev, concert pianist and conductor, seems distracted. He'll shortly join Sophia Loren at a lavish black-tie gala for the Russian National Orchestra, of which he's music director. There he'll talk about his work in serious terms. But right now, as he looks dapper and compact after a press luncheon for the RNO, his eye wanders and he answers questions with wry little one-line jokes.

Is it true, he's asked, that the RNO--billed as the first orchestra in Russia with no state funding or control--is completely independent of the government? "They let us pay taxes," he replies in English, with a faraway smile.

Pletnev founded the RNO eight years ago, when communism was tottering but still officially ruled, and when independent organizations of any kind were still a shocking novelty. Why had he taken such a step? "I am just a conductor," he answers. "I like to conduct good orchestra. RNO is good orchestra."

And did Russian musicians really leave jobs with established ensembles to join this one? "Yes," Pletnev says. "Every artist has wife saying, 'Where is the money?' But now the musician says, 'My darling, I'm going to join orchestra with young conductor whose future is not established." He shrugs.

But why did they join him?

"Ask them!" Pletnev says, breaking into a brilliant grin.

Pletnev has every reason to be confident. The RNO--which plays at the Los Angeles Music Center on Tuesday, in Palm Springs on Wednesday and in Santa Barbara on Thursday--was an instant success. It gave its debut concert in Moscow in November 1990 and on the spot was invited to London to record Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony for Virgin Classics. That recording, released in 1991, got reviews that were almost literally unbelievable.

"Should human beings be able to play like this?" asked Britain's Gramophone magazine.

With those reviews, Pletnev--whose career as a pianist began in 1978, when he won the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition at age 21--was decisively launched as a conductor. He had been known to Russian musicians before that, though, and--no wonder he grinned--that was one big reason why they joined his orchestra.

"I love Pletnev," says Rustem Gabdullin, the RNO's principal bassist, speaking with a shy smile, and apologizing often for his English. "All musicians wished to play for him."

The RNO's independence was also an attraction. Soviet orchestras were operated by the state, and the state guaranteed the musicians' salaries. But in other ways, the deal wasn't so attractive--these ensembles never publicized their concerts, for instance, typically posting just one announcement in a central place, like the Moscow Conservatory. The RNO seemed lively by comparison, proclaiming itself with banners and posters all over Moscow.

And it wasn't subject to bureaucratic whims. For 22 years before he joined the RNO, Gabdullin played in the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble inseparably linked with its conductor, Rudolf Barshai. Under Soviet rule, Gabdullin sadly remembers, "all orchestras have contract with official system, must do special things. We must play in every region, make some concerts in bad halls for 20 people, in bad district where nobody likes music."

The RNO, by contrast, plays all its concerts--20 or so in Moscow each year, plus a few in St. Petersburg, several on an annual tour down the Volga River and more on tour internationally--for people who care.

Gabdullin looks back happily to the last months of the Soviet Union, in 1990, when the RNO was formed. "It was very nice moment," he recalls, smiling again. "It was time with new ideas in Russia"--perfect for musicians like himself, who might have found work in the West but didn't want to leave home and transplant their families.

But the RNO had its problems. Early on--according to one of the irresistible stories supporters of the orchestra love to tell--the RNO was so poor, the musicians had just one pencil and had to pass it around to make corrections in their parts.

Some New Yorkers, hearing the RNO on this tour, thought the brass section sounded tinny. Asked about this, Sergei Markov, the orchestra's executive director, rubbed his thumb and forefinger together in the international symbol for money.

"We need better instruments," he says, adding that not only could the brass players use them, but also the woodwinds, basses and most of the violins.

And when it comes to the RNO's administrative difficulties, Markov is emphatic: "Finances are short. Orchestra management is business, but in Russia, circumstances in business are bad. People say but don't do."

"Music once was free as air," Markov says sarcastically, recalling the days when the Soviet government provided everything. "Now nobody understands that orchestra management is a business. Nobody will understand till music is gone."

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