By Lawrence Budmen

A veritable festival of Russian orchestras has been taking place in South Florida. No sooner had the Russian National Orchestra completed a week long residency at Festival of the Arts Boca (preceded by concerts in West Palm Beach and Miami) than the State Symphony Orchestra of Russia, another major Moscow based ensemble, took the stage of the Arsht Center on Monday, presented by the Concert Association of Florida. 

The historical and artistic differences between the two orchestras are closely intertwined. Russia’s first privately supported musical organization, the RNO is the artistic child of Mikhail Gorbachev and perestroika. With a glittering array of well heeled patrons including Gordon Getty, Sophia Loren and Gorbachev, the orchestra works with a star studded line up of internationally famous conductors and soloists. The government supported State Symphony is a Soviet creation of the 1930’s. While the ensemble has occasionally performed with Western artists, its podium has usually been mounted by Russian maestros. 

That cultural insularity is reflected in the group’s playing. While the RNO displays the lustrous string palette and burnished wind and brass sonorities of the best European ensembles; the State Symphony reflects a more distinctly Russian tradition, marked by darkly incisive strings, veiled wind tone and raucous brasses. A rtistic director Mark Gorenstein is an old fashioned podium martinet who maintains icy control over the musical proceedings. 

The Suite from Tchaikovsky’s incidental music to Alexander Ostrovsky’s play The Snow Maiden was the orchestra’s best offering. A typically melancholy Tchaikovsky melody in the second movement evoked a cascade of rich string tone. Dance of the Buffoons, a rousingly balletic showpiece, was a vehicle for flashy trumpet work.

With its unrelenting rapid fire figurations and repeated hand crossings, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3 can seem unplayable but Denis Matsuev, Gold Medal Winner of the 1998 Tchaikovsky International Competition, was more than equal to the task. An incendiary virtuoso with rock solid technique, Matsuev built the long crescendo in the first movement to an overwhelming climax. Yet he could play lyrically, unleashing subtle coloration in the Theme and Variations and central episode of the finale. 

Matsuev was somewhat hampered by Gorenstein’s mannered, rhythmically flabby conducting. For an encore, the pianist offered a dazzling transcription of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King, an explosive display of keyboard gymnastics. 

The orchestra’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No.2 seemed to take place in a time warp. Like many recordings by Russian ensembles from the 1950’s and 60’ s, the strings essayed thick rubato, wind intonation was sometimes fuzzy and brasses blared rousingly. 

Gorenstein’s slow tempos and heart on the sleeve sentimentality milked the big romantic melodies for maximum effect While the Mahlerian aura of Rachmaninoff’s sprawling symphony was slighted, Gorenstein’ s unflagging sense of rhythm and structure recalled a bygone Russian performance tradition. 

Copyright Sun-Sentinel


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