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Music Review

The Russians Offer Shows of Strength

Making up in sheer power what it lacked in nuance and refinement, the Bolshoi Theatre delivers red-letter performances.

March 13, 2001|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Anyone interested in international politics knows not to ignore Russia, and the same goes for its arts. These might not be the cheeriest of times for the country, but its great culture nevertheless imposes itself mightily upon us.

Note Stravinsky's ascendance to the top of the 20th century composer pantheon, Shostakovich's ever rising reputation, and the importance of such composers from the Soviet Union as Alfred Schnittke, Arvo Part and Sophia Gubaidulina. Consider the impact that the Kirov Opera and its conductor, Valery Gergiev, is having on the international scene, and the great expectations Los Angeles Opera has for his new commitment to the company. Look around the Southland and you will find much Russian music, opera and ballet.

The oldest and most famous Russian performing arts institution, the Bolshoi Theatre, has, however, been somewhat easier to discount. It has not been a force for some years now, apparently mired in artistic and administrative bureaucracy. But although the institution, which is in its 225th season, has been going through music directors quickly, it seems to be back on track.

Famed Russian conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky has been appointed overall music director of the Bolshoi Theatre, while fine conductor Mark Ermler heads the Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra (which is drawn from the larger opera and ballet orchestra). And the impression given by an "Opera Gala" devised by the Bolshoi Theatre at the Cerritos Center on Thursday night and a concert by the Bolshoi Symphony at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Sunday afternoon was that of a sleeping giant.

Unfortunately neither Rozhdestvensky nor Ermler were on hand for this tour. A young staff conductor, Pavel Klinichev, was sent along for the opera gala. Ermler had been scheduled to lead the symphony but illness forced a replacement, Valery Polyansky, a well-established Moscow maestro both at the Bolshoi and as music director of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra.

The opera gala was notable for its lack of imagination or personality, and yet it somehow still managed to be impressive. Three singers were on hand for a very long program that included arias and duets from Russian opera in the first half and from Verdi's operas in the second half. The presentation was dull, with one famous number stolidly presented after another. The singers made small--but only small--attempts to be dramatic. Klinichev, who liked to blow his artfully sculpted hair out of his eyes as he stood facing the audience between numbers--led everything with a facile, frisky efficiency. But he got the orchestra to play as if with a single breath.

The singers were fine in the Russian arias, but more dramatic in the Verdi--they and the orchestra musicians sound as much at home with the Italian style as their own. Soprano Irina Rubtsova is a convincing Aida--"Ritorna Vincitor!" was stately and secure. Her Tchaikovsky arias from "Eugene Onegin" and "Queen of Spades" were also sure but had less character.

The more dramatic mezzo-soprano, Irina Dolzhenko, sang a fiery "O Don fatale" from Verdi's "Don Carlo" but was less striking in an aria from Tchaikovsky's "The Maid of Orleans." Yuri Nechaev's baritone is on the light side; he was a subdued Onegin and Igor (in an aria from Borodin's "Prince Igor"), but an effective Rigoletto. In duets from various Russian and Verdi operas, the singers interacted with comfortable familiarity, but one would be happier to encounter them in a production rather than in a three-hour parade of set pieces.

The Bolshoi Symphony program was equally conventional, the major works being Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5. Denis Matsuev, a 24-year-old pianist who won first prize in the 1998 International Tchaikovsky Competition, is in the classic mold of enthusiastic Russian bangers with a big technique. He can play with extravagance, as he did in his solo encores, but in the concerto he was loud, leaden, percussive. He followed the concerto with Schumann's "Traumerei," which was slow and quiet to the point of affectation. A surprising jazz improvisation went at breakneck speed--Art Tatum on steroids. There is spunk in this young player, but not yet the sense of when to give more and when to give less.

Prokoviev's Fifth Symphony was completed in the late days of World War II and premiered in Moscow during the final push toward victory; it is music surely still significant for these Muscovites. The Bolshoi Symphony, egged on by Polyansky, made a terrific amount of noise playing it, as if wanting us to feel what it would be like to be in the path of a massive war machine. There are wonderful details, especially in the expressive string writing, that were not emphasized; it was rhythmically and coloristically uncooked. Yet its brass and percussion took no prisoners, and the sheer force of it all was, at times, overwhelmingly effective.

Few orchestras dare to make such a sound as this dark-toned, ominous, lumbering musical monster does, and clearly it has no intention of lying down and dying. After 225 years, it may not be in rosy health artistically, but that does not mean its glory days are over.

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