By R.M. Campbell
The Russian National Orchestra spends a good share of its collective life on the road. Since its founding, in 1990, the ensemble has spurned government funding, perhaps unique in all of Europe, in favor of American style private funding. Inevitably it has an international board that insist on an international profile.
It is not a stranger to Seattle. One of the great virtues of Benaroya Hall has been that there is now time and space for orchestras other than the Seattle Symphony. They are a principal highlight of the SSO season, some orchestras greater than others admittedly, but none is shabby. The Russian National Orchestra is among the best. Led by its founding music director, the pianist Mikhail Pletnev, the ensemble did a mostly Russian program Wednesday night: Tchaikovsky’s “Elegy” and Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony. The concerto du jour belonged to Dvorak which seems almost Russian because of its long identification with the late Mikhail Rostropovich. The cellist at Benaroya was Russian — a young virtuoso of great talent, Sergey Antonov.
Like most tour programs, this one was well-rehearsed by the orchestra. That kind of cohesion and unanimity of thought come with not only an agreement on musical ideas but solid preparation. The orchestra has a richness of sound, chamber music precision and supple technique. Everything about the concert was illuminating. The orchestra is composed of superb musicians. A good share of the winds had a solo spotlight, beginning with the French horn in the Tchaikovsky and more continuing in the Shostakovich. The strings constitute a particularly harmonious blend of sounds. With an austere but effective stick technique, Pletnev ensures good balance through the orchestra.
Tchaikovsky’s “Elegy” for string orchestra is pure Tchaikovsky in that it possesses an abundance of sumptuous tunes only the composer could write. They were given their full breadth of expression with the Russian National Orchestra. Could anything be more beautiful? The silences were equally breathtaking. This lament was a lament certainly but one that was expansive and poignant.
To say the Dvorak is one of the composer’s greatest works is a cliche. It is one of his iconic works and a staple of the concert stage. The young Russian is immensely talented, and he brought that talent to the work in full measure. The performance was very much in the Rostropovich style — full-bodied, technically assured, rich in human connections. Everything about Antonov is accomplished — his vast technical resources in which everything is possible, and a long line that makes Dvorak’s music one seamless phrase. He produces a tone like Rostropovich, big and handsome that filled the house. One might think he was playing some great Italian cello but he was not. His instrument was made in 19th-century France by an unknown maker. Even more bravos to the young musician. I hope he returns to the symphony.