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Friday, March 4, 2016

Concert Review: Memories of Perestroika

Mikhail Pletnev brings the Russian National Orchestra back to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The conductor Mikhail Pletnev at the helm of the Russian National Orchestra.
Photo provided by russiannationalorchestra.org
The Russian National Orchestra is a youngster among the major orchestras of the world. Formed in 1989 in the wake of Perestroika and the optimistic presidency of Mikhail Gorbachev, the RNO has been led for its entire existence by Mikhail Pletnev, a virtuoso pianist turned conductor. With all their musicians hand-picked by Mr. Pletnev, they sound quite unlike any other ensemble. Performances turn on Mr. Pletnev's maverick, occasionally puzzling interpretation choices in standard repertory, with an emphasis on Russian classics and very little in the way of modern music.

On Wednesday night, the RNO's tour arrived at Carnegie Hall, with a program that was Russian through and through. The usual order of overture-concerto-major work was followed, with works by Borodin, Prokofiev and Stravinsky filling the slots. Mr. Pletnev, slight but not frail in a Chinese silk conductor's jacket, walked onstage. His baton tucked between thumb and forefinger, he took the podium, the focus of his musicians and of the attentive audience.

Mr. Pletnev opened this concert with In the Steppes of Central Asia by Aleksandr Borodin, an ideal introduction to the unique sound of this ensemble. This is one of a handful of major works completed by this composer, a chemist who regarded music as more pleasurable diversion than career choice. Borodin's orchestration revolves around tunes in the flute and English horn, which are then masterfully woven into a thick and snug musical fabric. The winds and brass embodied that dark, throaty sound, unique to this orchestra and entirely suited to this work.

Next came Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto, combining the composer's sense of spook-house irony with a strict neo-classical structure that forces the soloist to exist within the confines of the straitjacket-like orchestration. Here, the soloist was Stefan Jackiw, who charged with bold fervor into the violin theme that kicks off the first movement. Accompanied enthusiastically by Mr. Pletnev, his violin formed the core of a playful debate between soloist and orchestra lasting for three exciting movements.

Following the whiz-bang finale of the Prokofiev concerto, Mr. Jackiw obliged the crowd with a challenging encore, the difficult and exposed slow movement from Bach's C Major Sonata. Here, this soloist's excellent qualities were fully revealed: a rich cantabile tone and an utter respect for the line of Bach's musical reasoning, with notes and (more importantly) rests in their right and relevant places. It was a hushed, Orphic moment and a sign of great potential in this artist.

For the second half, Mr. Pletnev chose the 1945 Suite from Stravinsky's Firebird ballet, a version that shaves about 15 minutes off the score, pares down some of the orchestral excess of the composer's youth, and still maintains the energy and vitality of this piece, which looks forward to the 20th century while drawing on the Russian nationalist movement of composers like Borodin, Mussorgsky and (Stravinsky's teacher) Rimsky-Korsakov. This was a bold and bright Firebird although some eccentric decisions (playing the string chords with short, sharp strokes) made for interesting and acceptable deviations from the norm.

The smoke and ash from The Firebird had barely settled when Mr. Pletnev returned for not one, but two Russian encores. The first was the charming Waltz from the Masquerade Suite by Khachaturian, a bold and colorful movement shot through with percussive energy and rich cello tone. Then came one more showpiece: Tchaikovsky's Dance of Skomorokhi from his incidental music for the play The Snow Queen. It was a valuable reminder of the wonders of this composer's repertory that is so often left unexplored.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.