Monday, February 25, 2008

Winter nights

The history of Russian music and as a result Russian chamber music, can be divided before opera and after opera. Prior to the arrival of opera, Russian musical tradition could be generously described as primitive. There were no composers of note and no real instrumental tradition. Folk songs and folk performances were typical, but even those were discouraged by the harsh influence of the Orthodox Church.

We know that this isn’t the whole story of Russian music. We would never have heard Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Prokofiev if it were.

The arrival of opera marked a dramatic shift and musical renaissance within Russia. In less than fifty years, Russia was able to establish itself as a global musical force influenced by the west but with its own unique voice. Early Russian musical pioneers successfully reconciled Western forms and influences with a unique Russian imprint.

The Russian Chamber Music Foundation’s inaugural concert last night at the Nordstrom recital hall may do the same thing for Russian chamber music in Seattle.

Russian Chamber Music was founded in 2007 by Dr. Natalya Ageyeva. Ageyeva began formal piano lessons at the age of thirteen when she was accepted at Moscow’s Special Music School for Talented Children. She came to the United States to complete her PhD at the University Washington. Local music audiences remember Ageyeva as the Finisterra Trio’s pianist.

The goal of Russian Chamber Music is ambitious: “to bring the best of Russian chamber music to American audiences.” Choosing the best is almost an impossible task because there is so much good, interesting Russian chamber music out there. Moreover, defining what is “Russian” is equally as difficult. Do we include Ukrainian, Georgian, Estonian and other regions that are not ethnically Russian but were associated with Russia and the Soviet Union? Arensky, Taneyev, Silvestrov, Gubaidulina, Glinka and Miaskovsky come to mind as “Russian” composers worth exploring and with any luck Seattle will occasionally hear more music from these and other composers that don’t often show up in Seattle concert programs. Ultimately these are challenges, as artistic director, for Ageyeva to determine.

Nevertheless, how Ageyeva defines what is “Russian” and what constitutes the “best” may not matter much as long as Ageyeva and her fellow musicians perform like they did last night.

Ageyeva was joined by local favorite cellist Josh Roman and Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center violinist Arnaud Sussman. The three don’t regularly play together and while this was apparent at times, especially when one player would dominate the other, they dug into the music, exploring both the dark and light.

Sussman was especially fine. His performance of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir D’un Lieu Cher and Waltz Scherzo flowed effortlessly. His playing was nuanced and shimmering.

The meat of the performance, Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata and the ubiquitous Shostakovich Trio Op.67, were framed by three short pieces by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Prokofiev’s Op.119 sonata was one of the composer’s final works, having been composed while Prokofiev carried the burden of being denounced as a “formalist.” Roman had a clear affinity for the music. Roman’s performance was sympathetic and very warm. Even the furious passages for the cello were handled well.  Sean McLean, the host for the evening, suggested Roman's performance of the sonata may even show up on a recording when the cellist strikes out as a solo artist at the end of the Seattle Symphony season. 

The Shostakovich Trio has been popular this year. Earlier in the year, I heard Ageyeva’s former ensemble, the Finisterra Trio, perform the same piece. And not too long after the Finisterra’s performance the Onyx Chamber Players took on the piece. Compared to the Finisterra’s performance last fall, Saturday’s performance was highly rugged. The Allegretto was even more intense than usual with Sussman, Roman and Ageyeva letting Shostakovich’s music to lash out wildly as if they were tempting their own skill to keep it all together. For people who like their Shostakovich unbridled, the three young performers delivered.

Hopefully the Russian Chamber Music Foundation is successful. There is much to love in the Russian chamber repertoire. The next concert doesn’t come until November 5, 2008 but will feature the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in a Rachmaninov inspired concert. Mark your calendars now because I suspect the next concert will be even more popular than Saturday’s inaugural performance.

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