The week-long program of Russian music in the Boston area came to an impressive climax Sunday evening at Jordan Hall with three and one-half hours of mainly solo singers and choral performances. The 2nd International Rachmaninoff Russian Music Festival ended with a rousing version of the finale of Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar, complete with full chorus, orchestra and a somewhat overpowering set of bells.
Organized under the artistic direction of Irina Shachneva, who conducted several choral numbers and the Glinka finale in her usual muscular style, the program brought together a wide array of Russian sopranos, bassos, and one stunning countertenor. The unifying theme was simply that nearly all the pieces and performers were of Russian origin.
Many of the selections were unfamiliar, but that was Mme. Shachneva’s point — to introduce lesser-known works to the American audience while showcasing Russian musical talent of a high standard.
Jordan Hall was only two-thirds filled, perhaps because the concert fell on the Memorial Day weekend, but the reception was close to rapturous. The language of song and intermission chat was almost entirely Russian. I momentarily thought I was back at the Bolshoi Theater, where I last saw A Life for the Tsar (renamed Ivan Susanin under the Soviets) in the 1970s.
A highlight of the Jordan Hall program was the duet and quartet from Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin featuring the well blended voices of Maria Lyudko, Donna Stoering, Julia Steinbok and Sonia Bruzauskas and the instrumentalists assembled for this program under the banner of the “Festival Orchestra.” Bass-baritone Alexander Prokhorov, a popular Boston presence, performed an unaccompanied Russian folk song, casually slouched with one foot on the podium, that brought tears to some of the Russian eyes. The most eerily beautiful performance came from Andrey Nemzer, a countertenor accompanied by Alla Kachan, who delivered a Farinelli-like selection of Rachmaninoff and Glinka songs. Originally a master of the darker spinto tenor repertoire, Nemzer only recently developed his falsetto and now brings his considerable masculine power to the upper register in the most natural manner. The result is thrilling. The much-traveled Moscow chorus Elegia charmed the hall with a selection of church and folk music under the direction of Marina Alekseeva. A somewhat brutal change of pace came after intermission with the Juventas New Music Ensemble. Following their performance of Passacaglia Zero by the established contemporary composer Polina Nazaykinskaya, the Russians around me, most of them over 60, applauded dutifully but looked perplexed.
Shachneva dominated the evening with her expressive conducting, at the end catching her hundreds of singers and players by surprise. As a standing ovation rolled over the hall, she spontaneously shouted to the choir and orchestra to do a reprise of the Glinka finale. After some nervous fumbling with their music and some hasty throat-clearing, they were off again. The audience was delighted by her improvisation. I wondered how many remembered how Count Basie used to do this with his climactic ending of April in Paris. “One more time,” he would shout. Did Irina shout “Yeshcho raz”? I couldn’t quite hear.