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A Matter of Time

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
01/23/2000 -  
Sergei Rachmaninoff: The Isle of the Dead
Serge Prokofieff: Violin Concerto # 2
Alexander Scriabin: Symphony # 3

Kyung-Wha Chung (violin)
Russian National Orchestra
Mikhail Pletnev (conductor)

Forged by the vagaries of the collapsing Soviet economy, the Russian National Orchestra is now in its tenth season of providing a haven for some of Eastern Europe's most competent orchestral musicians and former soloists who would otherwise have had to give up their careers to make even a meager living. Highly acclaimed in Europe, this orchestra has not been greeted warmly in the United States and prompted rather harsh reviews from my colleagues two seasons ago. Their original conductor, Mikhail Pletnev, has already moved on, leaving himself to be billed as the "conductor laureate" of the ensemble, a rather pretentiously ridiculous appellation for such a young man. I believe that the dichotomy of opinion on the two sides of the water stems from this orchestra's rather pedestrian sound, much less brilliant than so many of the fine groups in the Northeastern United States but more acceptable in the culture east of the Rhine with its traditions of pale brass sections and more homogenous timbres. Two years ago the Times called this orchestra "insipid". Perhaps a better and less pejorative term for today's sound would be "impressionistic".

Pletnev gets the most out of his players and led them in an interesting account of the Rachmaninoff. The original Boecklin painting (actually one of a series all with the same title) which inspired not only this piece but one of the four Max Reger settings hangs right here in New York and this performance was at least a viable one although the overall sound of the orchestra left Pletnev's river Styx less frightening and more dreary. In fact the entire concert would have been fabulous without the overwhelming sense of dullness conveyed by this particular sonic combination. Time and again I thought that the conducting was really quite expert and yet the music never seemed to break out of its tepid acoustical sarcophagus.

The proceedings were enlivened somewhat by the appearance of Kyung-Wha Chung. Ms. Chung is a particular favorite of mine and it is because she is a musician's musician. Having played chamber music with her famous brother and sister from childhood, Ms. Chung is a very good onstage listener. She literally throws herself into her performance and today moved about the stage encouraging her colleagues while she was playing! Her singing tone in the cantabile opening theme of the second movement was breathtakingly beautiful and her rhythmic intensity served her well in the Spanish finale. She is extremely emotive and possesses an elastic face which registers both her joy and her displeasure in a disarmingly innocent way so we could all share in her ecstasy as well as her agony when some boor's cellular phone invaded the quiet section of the second movement. Ms. Chung didn't miss a bow stroke however and continued to play magnificently. Even when the castanet player played the wrong rhythm in the third movement she was unflustered and visibly coached him in the reprise.

Alexander Scriabin was in the same composition class at the Moscow Conservatory as Rachmaninoff (I believe the course title was "Great Washes of Sound") but certainly went down his own path after graduation. Scriabin thought of his music as only a means to an end as he was more concerned with the bizarre theosophy of a charismatic woman of the time who led him to become a mystic. Unfortunately the line between poetry and boredom is a thin one in Scriabin and these Russians came down squarely on the wrong side this day. Again the dull sound was the culprit I am sure. What should have been colorfully exciting was really only soporific and the crashing chordal ending woke up more than a few patrons who quickly recovered and ran for the exits.

It is important to keep things in perspective however. This is a fledgling ensemble and one that can evolve given some maturation time. After all, when the Amsterdam Concertgebouw was ten years old, it was little more than a village band.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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