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Russian orchestra plays locally

By Marcel Smith

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  This week, the newly formed Chamber Players of the American Russian Youth Orchestra are spending four days in Nashville. While here, they'll record a promotional CD at the Sound Emporium, take part in a Master Class with the Blair String Quartet, and offer two performances. The first is a concert at Blair this Wednesday, Sept. 16; the second, on Thursday evening, is a fund-raising event at Gibson's Caffé Milano.

The American Russian Youth Orchestra, made up of musicians ages 17-25, was formed a decade ago as the American Soviet Youth Orchestra. Since then, it has rapidly built an international reputation for excellent performance and imaginative programming. Its repertory emphasizes the works of Russian and American composers--both lesser-known pieces by recognized masters and music by living masters hardly known at all.

Susan Burger, the group's local chairperson, heard the full ensemble in 1995 at the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and she immediately began lobbying to have them visit Music City. The ARYO first performed in Nashville last June, when the full orchestra, 40 Russian and 40 American musicians, launched its fifth world tour from War Memorial Auditorium. They were received with such warm hospitality that they've taken to calling Nashville their "second home." Now the Chamber Players, which consist of 15 musicians selected from the full orchestra, are visiting Nashville as part of a seven-city tour of the U.S. The full orchestra, expanded to 90 musicians, is slated to play in Nashville again next June.

Though young, ARYO musicians are talented and accomplished--chosen via open auditions from the best music schools in both countries. To prepare for each world tour, they gather yearly in the United States or in Russia for an intensive three-week rehearsal under the direction of leading international conductors--including Leon Botstein (American Symphony Orchestra), Valery Gergiev (Kirov Opera Orchestra), Zubin Mehta (Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra), Constantine Orbelian (Moscow Chamber Orchestra), and Leonard Slatkin (National Symphony Orchestra).

But the music is not an end in itself. According to Edyth M. Holbrook, the ARYO's executive director and one of its founders, the project grew out of glasnost--the opening up of relations between the two former global enemies. "In 1987, a group of us Russia mavens got together to figure how to pull the two countries together productively. And as we talked about possibilities, someone mentioned a symphony orchestra. At first we thought it might be a crazy idea, but when we spoke with musicians in both countries, they didn't think it was all that crazy."

Indeed, the idea has succeeded enormously--though not without difficulties. In Russia, Holbrook says, "It's almost impossible to get a grip on where things are headed. But we don't give up. Change is the milieu in which we have to operate in Russia, and we have learned how to use it productively." Private sponsorships in both countries have helped ensure the ensemble's survival.

The ARYO calls itself "a vital model for cultural exchange." It brings together young musicians and teaches them, through music, how American history and Russian history have become intertwined. The preparation includes language-training, cross-cultural orientation, and homestays. Moreover, outside experts such as Wynton Marsalis conduct workshops in jazz and in other matters, including orchestra management and U.S.-Russian relations.

Such studies give the students a deeper understanding of their endeavor. "The politics of music [in Russia] really reflects the larger issue of the tension between the center and the provinces," Holbrook explains. "But the future of Russia is in the provinces [where] the big orchestras...are fighting for their lives, [unable to look at] the next generation of talent. This is something our orchestra can do. We are not a vehicle for musicians to leave Russia. We are fighting to keep the talent there, to keep the great cultural institutions of Russia alive."

Leon Botstein adds that the two training systems often enrich each other. The Russians, he says, have probably never played rhythms derived from ragtime, without which you can't play Bernstein. But they bring a special stylistic security to Glazunov and Tchaikovsky, making the string lines sing like human voices. And yet, after a couple of weeks, he says, the players have learned enough from one other that you really can't tell who comes from where.

The ARYO is obliged to re-form itself with every new season, much as an NCAA football team does. Some players will remain for two years or three, but others leave and must be replaced. Many go on to positions with other orchestras--among them the New World Symphony, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, and the Kirov Orchestra. Others choose to work in international relations.

This week's two concerts emblematize the "vital model." Each evening is distinct, with only two works appearing on both programs. The musicians--a pianist, a flutist, an oboist, a bassoonist, a clarinetist, a French-horn player, and string players--will be heard in varying combinations: quartets, quintets, and an octet. In effect, it will be a set of chamber recitals rather than a single concert. Both programs begin with the translucent classicism of Mozart (d. 1791) and include the Romantic neo-classicism of Mendelssohn (d. 1847). But all other selections, save one, are by Russian and American composers who lived, or are still living, in the 20th century.

The Russian composers--Tchaikovsky (d. 1893), Rimsky-Korsakov (d. 1908), Prokofiev (d. 1953), and Shostakovich (d. 1975)--are all best known as composers for large ensembles. Tchaikovsky is perhaps the most telling example. Renowned for The Nutcracker ballet and for symphonies and concertos, he wrote quite a lot of chamber music too. The slow, achingly lyrical movement from his first string quartet, offered in the Caff¸ Milano performance, is quintessential Tchaikovsky almost unheard in our time.

The two most recent compositions are both by living American composers. One, on both programs, is Suite for Woodwind Quintet by Gunther Schuller (b. 1925). Schuller, a prolific composer in a wide range of forms, sees all varieties of music as parts of one cultural whole. He has with keen intelligence located the varieties of jazz within the context of musics before it and contemporary with it. And his own work is devoted to metabolizing widely diverse elements into newly powerful forms.

His Quintet (1944) is a case in point. The piece begins with a melody in an ancient mode accompanied by contemporary rhythms, continues with a "precisely notated blues fantasy," then finishes with a sophisticated contemporary toccata. The Quintet is a delight in itself--and a kind of macro for what would come after it.

Joan Tower (b. 1938), the other living composer, provides, for me, the most wonderful offering--a witty marvel called "Petroushskates" that blends insightful homage to Stravinsky with admiration for pairs figure skating. Like Schuller, Tower is almost unknown except to people interested in contemporary classical music, but she is for those listeners a much-honored composer of rare genius. She has written in a range of forms, but her true vocation is chamber music, in which her awareness of instrumental color and rhythmic texture seems extra-sensory.

Most notably, perhaps, Tower has a vital sense of humor; she calls "Petroushskates" "a sort of musical carnival on ice." Indeed, it's rare to find a modern composer willing to infuse "serious" music with such wit and levity. Such a selection goes a long way in explaining what makes Chamber Players themselves a rare ensemble--offering the sort of music that goes nearly unheard in our Music City. Even if they give a perfunctory performance, it should not be missed. And chances are, they'll offer something more akin to robust delight.

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