Even though it’s been in existence since
1776, the Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre has been relegated
to second place among the great Russian orchestras. At least
that’s been the case in recent years, since the renowned Kirov
Opera, under conductor Valery Gergiev, has taken up the mantle
of showing the rest of the world the superlative artistry and
dedication of Russian musicianship.
But don’t shed any tears yet for the Bolshoi
Symphony Orchestra (as it’s better known). As its concert at
the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday will undoubtedly
show, the Bolshoi is second to no one, not even the Kirov, its
deservedly hyped-up kid brother.
With its principal conductor, Valery Polyansky,
on the podium, the Bolshoi Symphony is equally at home performing
its interpretations of the best of an imposing roster of homegrown
For its Brooklyn Center program, Maestro
Polyansky has fashioned a sort of a primer to show audiences
what both his orchestra and their composing countrymen do well.
Scheduling both Peter Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff might
at first seem like a concession to popularity, since the two
composers have many more partisans among the listening public
than do, say, Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev (to say
nothing of Alfred Schnittke or Aleksandr Glazunov). But in this
case, Polyansky should get the benefit of the doubt.
Although the afternoon begins with a typically
boisterous Tchaikovsky lollipop, the "Coronation March,"
it is – as are most of this composer’s popular works – brilliantly
orchestrated, which means it will be a good litmus test for the
sheer beauty of sound the Bolshoi Symphony produces.
Tchaikovsky himself has long been associated
with the Bolshoi. In his prime, his ballet writing ("Swan
Lake" and "The Nutcracker") gave as much importance
to what the orchestra was playing as to what the dancers were
performing, thereby elevating the Bolshoi musicians to a level
equal to the dancers themselves. This has also had a reciprocal
effect: its growing virtuosity has enabled the orchestra to tackle
the often ignored music of other Russian masters like Mikhail
Glinka, Aleksandr Borodin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
The first half of the Brooklyn Center program
ends with another Tchaikovsky work, the Piano Concerto No. 1
in B-flat Minor, Op. 23. Performed by the superb soloist Denis
Matsuev, it is a dazzling showpiece, not only for the soloist
– the many flights of virtuoso piano playing are thrilling to
hear and even to see – but also for the other musicians, for
Tchaikovsky made sure to keep the orchestra and piano in dramatic
counterpoint quite often throughout the piece. Polyansky surely
wouldn’t have included the Tchaikovsky First if his musicians
and Matsuev weren’t already a finely honed ensemble.
Making the Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2
in E Minor, Opus 27, the entire second half of the concert is
a gutsy decision by Polyansky, if only because the gorgeously
sweeping melodies for which most Rachmaninoff lovers beg – like
his piano concertos, including the infamous "Rach 3"
that lit up the movie "Shine" – isn’t always in evidence
Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony is the composer’s
most daring work, both structurally and musically. At nearly
an hour, it’s by far the longest of his important musical statements,
and it often goes for pages of the score without those "memorable"
Rachmaninoff melodies. Some have complained that its sheer length
and lack of melodic structure work against it, but Rachmaninoff
pulls it off. In a first-rate performance, all of the elements
that its composer poured into it magically cohere into pure musical
As if in reply to those who might not appreciate
the music of some of his compatriots, Polyansky has succinctly
said: "We live in a world full of emotional colors and contrasts,
and this is reflected in the rich treasury of music, all of which
must be presented on our contemporary concert stage."
In other words, don’t penalize Tchaikovsky
and Rachmaninoff for pleasing millions of listeners with their
music; there are reasons why it has endured, and will endure,
for years to come, reasons that should be apparent on the Brooklyn
Center stage Sunday.
The Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra will
perform "All-Russian Repertoire" at Brooklyn Center
for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College [Walt Whitman Theater,
Brooklyn College, one block from the junction of Nostrand and
Flatbush avenues, (718) 951-4500] on Sunday March 18 at 2 pm.
Tickets are $25 and $30.