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Music review: Moscow State Symphony is astonishing in Cerritos

October 31, 2010 |  3:30 pm

When Gramophone magazine made its list of the 20 best orchestras in the world two years ago, the Dresden Staatskapelle, which played in Orange County Wednesday night, came in at No. 10. The 14th, 15th and 16th spots went to Russians (Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, Russian National Orchestra and Leningrad Philharmonic), all reasonable choices.

I happened to be one of the critics polled for the list, and it never occurred to me to nominate the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra. This orchestra, which was formed in 1934, appeared at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts Friday night. Sorry, Dresden, and all you other Russians, but I won't make that mistake again. The MSSO might well be the world's least-heralded great orchestra.

The program was conventional and the audience modest-sized. Pavel Kogan conducted. The young American violinist Jennifer Koh was soloist in Bruch’s Violin Concerto. The concert ended with Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” and after the first picture, “Gnomus,” someone in the audience exclaimed “wow!” Mussorgsky’s gnarled gnome came to life as an unsettling creature in three horrific dimensions.

The last reference I can find to the MSSO on the Times database is sad. A 1998 Column One story from Moscow begins with a reporter in the office of the orchestra’s desperate general manager. Salaries for the players were poverty level, their instruments in poor shape and their concert wardrobes threadbare. “State officials,” the manager says, “don’t understand that if they let Russia’s culture die, all they’ll be left with is a nation of bandits.”

The orchestra gets by these days as a band that can be hired on the cheap to record super-obscure repertory for budget labels. It tours a great deal, but not so much on the circuit of A-list halls.  It does at least now get some support from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, which was thanked in the program book.

On stage, these Muscovites actually look like citizens of that nation of bandits. One surly cellist appeared ready to spit on the listeners in the front row. The bass players were bruisers who displayed such angry –- if extraordinarily skillful -- ferocity that had their instruments been loaded with live ammunition, not I nor anyone else would now be around to report back on this concert.

The conductor -- the son of the famous Russian violinist Leonid Kogan –- seemed something of a tough guy himself. He took his bows with the satisfied expression of a cocky prizefighter who had just beaten his opponent to a pulp. It turns out that he's a brilliant musician. 

The concert began with Tchaikovsky’s normally touristy showpiece, “Capriccio Italien.” This time it meant something. Kogan ripped off Tchaikovsky’s false face, leaving behind searing, fraught music. The intensity was a shock.

Even Bruch’s Violin Concerto became something far more than a vehicle for all-purpose romantic gushing. Koh, who has always impressed me the most in modern music, here gave a throbbing reading that brought to mind the passionate, Russian fiddling of real personality.

Despite’s Ravel’s orchestration, Mussorgsky’s “Pictures” were dark and Slavic. Even Ravel’s Frenchified alto saxophone solo left little doubt here that “The Old Castle” sat on Russian soil. The mythical hag, Baba-Yaga, was treated like a terrorist. The women in “The Market at Limoges” haggled with knives. The “Catacombs” blackened all of Cerritos. The glorious brass in the “Great Gate of Kiev”turned the blinding bright lights back on.

Before trudging further on their out-of-way tour of the States, Kogan and the MSSO will give a tuning concert Monday of the new Valley Performing Arts Center, a concert hall at Cal State Northridge. With these revelatory Russians, a free seismic test is part of the bargain.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Violinist Jennifer Koh performing with conductor Pavel Kogan and the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra Friday night at Cerritos Center. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times.