What could be more familiar than Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto or Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini? Even Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony has become a frequent guest in American concert halls. Alexander Glazunov? The name is known, his Symphony No. 6 not as much. But all of these masterworks share a common heritage with the artists presenting them next month for Great Performers at Lincoln Center.
To fully appreciate Russian music it helps to hear it interpreted by Russian musicians. Why is this so? Mikhail Pletnev, the founder and music director of the Russian National Orchestra, who will lead the second of two programs of Russian music at Avery Fisher Hall (March 18), offers at least one reason: the specifics of Russian melody, which are so important to Russian classical music, are in the blood of Russian musicians. "I would not try to explain it more precisely," he adds, "because here we enter an area as inexplicable as the 'mysterious Russian soul.'"
Vladimir Jurowski, the principal guest conductor of the RNO, who will lead another program of Russian music on March 13, has a more detailed answer:
"Each culture has its own system of idioms and symbols that are open to those who belong to that particular culture," he says. "There are, of course, eternal, universal themes, but each nation, including Russia, perceives and interprets them differently, and it is not easy for people from other cultures to unearth hidden meanings that are obvious to us. Now, when so many Russian musicians are teaching and performing around the world, the differences are not so obvious. I've worked with foreign soloists — such as the brilliant Leonidas Kavakos, who will play Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with us — and realized that they do not need any translation either: they get all the specifics absolutely right.
"Russian composers," Jurowski continues, "were often driven in their musical thinking by nonmusical forces, and you cannot perform Russian work without taking into account its historical or personal context." As an example, the conductor points out Sergei Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony.
"I am convinced that Prokofiev wrote it wholeheartedly as a citizen of his country, which at that time, in 1943-44, was going through a devastating war," he says. "However, being an extremely smart but somewhat detached person, he chose, as in two previous works closely related to the Fifth — the cantata Alexander Nevsky and the opera War and Peace — an epic approach. He viewed the events from a distance.
"There are episodes that could seem ambiguous if you do not dig into history and into Prokofiev's own mentality," Jurowski explains. "Take, for instance, the Finale. It seems as optimistic as Soviet musicology wanted it to be. But there is this coda. It brings out the image of a train that runs faster and faster and becomes scarier, and you do not know whether it rushes into a bright future or into a stone wall. To me, this symphony is especially dear because of its hidden lyricism. Quite tellingly, its key is not the cheerful, sunny C major of a young Prokofiev, but a softer, slightly darker B major of his last works. Prokofiev once told his friend Mstislav Rostropovich that B major brings to him an image of Russian birches: black spots on a white background."
Common wisdom says that it takes many years to build a great orchestra. The RNO seems to prove otherwise, although its short history is not devoid of some ups and downs.
Established in 1990, the orchestra was the first independently financed and governed musical group in Russia. At a time when the government money for the arts was scarce and old organizational structures were falling apart, the Western model of a privately supported orchestra looked very attractive. To get funding from both Russian and Western sources was not too difficult either. Many were eager to support the new Russian enterprises.
Good salaries and the reputation of Pletnev, the orchestra's leader, attracted outstanding players. Pletnev threw himself into a rigorous rehearsal process and the orchestra, with its rich, bright sound and boundless energy, soon became a symbol of the new brave Russian world. International and domestic tours, including regular visits to the United States, and highly praised recordings (RNO has an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon) followed soon.
The 1999-2000 season brought new leadership by the internationally acclaimed violinist and conductor Vladimir Spivakov. Pletnev stayed as honorary music director and frequently performed with the orchestra as a conductor and soloist.
Three years later the situation changed again. Spivakov was out and started to build his own orchestra, taking some musicians from the RNO with him. Pletnev returned to the role of principal conductor and music director. Many young musicians joined the orchestra, and Jurowski became its first principal guest conductor.
The two maestros are different from each other in many aspects. Pletnev, who is almost 15 years older, is a pure product of the Russian music school, groomed among the musical elite at the Moscow Conservatory. Jurowski, although he worked initially through the same Soviet system of professional musical education, has been living abroad since 1990, when, at the age of 18, he moved with his family to Germany.
Pletnev, a winner of the 1976 Moscow International Tchaikovsky competition, became internationally known first as a pianist of tremendous musicianship, originality, and refinement, with unique command of the expressive powers of the piano. The conducting came much later.
Jurowski studied at the College of the Moscow Conservatory as a future musicologist, and turned to conducting in Germany, following in the steps of his father. But after a breakthrough at the age of 23 (due to a last-minute invitation to replace another conductor in a new production of Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Mayskaya Noch), he rapidly rose to the ranks of the most sought-after conductors, both in the symphony hall and in the opera house. At 34 he is now music director of the prestigious Glyndebourne Festival and artistic director designate of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
In person Pletnev is reserved, ironic, a man of few words, an enigma who opens up only on stage. Jurowski is friendly, talkative, and open, though no less serious.
No matter the differences, both maestros feel the deepest connection with Russian music and are eager to present not only old favorites with a fresh approach but also the unjustly forgotten masterpieces — such as Glazunov's Sixth. "This is music of the highest caliber, and its drama, diversity, and sheer beauty should win American audiences," says Pletnev. He is also happy to bring along the internationally acclaimed Nikolai Lugansky as a soloist in Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody.
Both Pletnev and Jurowski are fond of the musicians of the RNO. "What I love about them is that they are such enthusiasts. They are eager to learn, they work tirelessly," says Pletnev.
"I can talk to them using the language of symbols, metaphors, and imagination," Jurowski exclaims.
All of these artists are a part of the same history and tradition as the featured composers. Their imaginations and sensitivities were developed by the same legends and landscapes. Even in today's global village, such national specifics matter.
Maya Pritsker is cultural editor at Novoye Russkoye Slovo, the largest Russian-language daily newspaper in the United States.