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Music review: Russian National Orchestra in Cerritos

February 21, 2010 |  4:19 pm

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The Russian National Orchestra, a miracle of perestroika, was founded by Mikhail Pletnev 20 years ago. The first orchestra in Russia with no state support, it broke all the rules. It was an orchestra with no tradition, led by a pianist with little conducting or ensemble building experience. Yet from the start, the orchestra proved one of the world’s great ensembles.

To look at the U.S. itinerary of the orchestra's 20th anniversary tour, which included a stop at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday night, you might reasonably conclude that the glory days for an orchestra once a magnet for celebrities and world leaders (including Sophia Loren, Bill Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev) are over. It is mostly skirting the big cities and major venues. The tour winds up as the centerpiece of an arts festival in Boca Raton, Fla., where it will premiere a new work by Gordon Getty and where the orchestra shares festival billing with New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Still, these resolute Russians wouldn’t still be together if they couldn’t smell money and weren’t politically savvy. They’re still great. The concert in Cerritos, conducted by Pletnev, was glorious.

Even so, this is a weird tour and Saturday’s was a weird, if very Russian, concert. Pletnev began somberly with an elegy and ended with musical wisecracks. In between came Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’s sarcastic Symphony No. 9.

Pletnev is not a demonstrative conductor. At the podium he looks like a plutocrat who can make things happen by snapping his fingers. With the flick of a wrist he exquisitely shaped each phrase and controlled extraordinarily delicate dynamics. In the opening elegy, from Tchaikovsky’s Third Suite, the string tone was as rich and pleasing a blend as can be found this side of Vienna.

Stefan Jackiw, a 24-year-old violinist from Boston, was soloist in Tchaikovsky’s concerto. He has been hyped as the next sensation. His Korean mother and Ukrainian/German father are physicists. He is Harvard-educated. He is slight, fine-featured, boyish. He has a striking, percussive technique. He could be a rock star. And he tears into Tchaikovsky like a rock star might if a rock star could.

Even if you don’t care much for this sort of thing, Jackiw’s was a fascinating, impressive and often riveting performance. A soloist's blistering tone stood in stark contrast to the warmer Russian string and wind sound. Jackiw made each phrase an individual and excitable event, whether it needed to be or not. In the folk-inspired Finale, Jackiw might have been playing Bartók or something more modern, and I’m not sure why he wasn’t.

But Pletnev was a marvelous accompanist. He did not inhibit Jackiw, letting a young virtuoso go where he would while saving him from recklessness. There can’t be much doubt that Jackiw’s star will continue to rise. He has the flamboyance and the goods. I hope the capacity for growth is part of the equation as well.

The Ninth is Shostakovich’s carnival-esque 1945 victory symphony. It comes between the wartime “Leningrad” Symphony and the heavy, philosophical Tenth. One way to look at the Ninth’s superciliousness celebration of Russian victory is as Shostakovich’s snubbing of Stalin. The tragedy of war was too much for anything but farce, and such suffering made Shostakovich silly. Meanwhile, Russia's troubles were hardly over. 

Pletnev’s performance was very subtle, operating on the level of profound understatement. The surface of the symphony sounded like lively easy-listening Saturday. The nose thumbing and flatulence jokes remained underneath. But the approach didn’t move the audience. Jackiw received a rousing standing ovation after the first movement of the concerto. After the symphony, the crowd sat on its hands.

The encores were two amusing movements from Pletnev’s own “Jazz Suite.” The style is Shostakovich meets Spike Jones. And that’s not a bad way to look at modern-day Moscow or keep an orchestra’s spirits up while on the grueling road.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Stefan Jackiw. Credit: 21C Media Group

     
 

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