in: Reviews

May 29, 2012

Russian Revelations


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.

Michael Johnson is a former Moscow correspondent who writes on music for the International Herald Tribune, Clavier Companion and other publications. He divides his time between Bordeaux and Brookline.


  1. I wholeheartedly concur with your views, particularly the desire to introduce lesser-known works to a wider audience, which I would define as an audience that may not all speak Russian. The one glaring shortcoming of this concert was the complete absence of texts and translations. These should ideally be provided even with the more familiar repertoire (Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, etc.) but absolutely with lesser-known items, e.g., Aliabiev’s “The Nightingale”, the aria from “Christmas Eve” by Rimsky-Korsakov, and the many Russian folk songs. To assume that the audience will all speak Russian is, for me, preaching to the choir. There was some wonderful music on this program, performed beautifully, but anyone with no Russian couldn’t help but feel left out frequently, with no knowledge of what was being sung. My advice to the Festival for next year: shorten the program a bit and provide translations. This, I believe, is the way to proselytize!

    Comment by Geoffrey Wieting — May 29, 2012 at 8:49 pm

  2. *The writing here is so good that I feel as if I had been at the concert. Mr. Johnson writes with flair that serves both Glinka and the music described. And I love his close to the article. Kudos. 

    Comment by Mary L. Tabor — May 31, 2012 at 12:20 pm

  3. I agree with Ms. Tabor, this is the way review should be written, especially considering a subpar review of Iolanta, let alone of Falstaff on January 23, 2012. I think those of us who are into vocal arts know that as a rule of thumb the last person to review operas should be an orchestra conductor or a general music professor.

    Opera primarily is a vocal art. Orchestra is primarily there to provide background for singers. In smaller venues the orchestra at times could even be substituted for a single piano. It’s the same as if someone were to review a movie with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and talk about the sets and the music, and the direction and then say something like “Oh yeah, and Mr. Astaire and Ms. Rogers danced well too” As for music teachers, I took three general music classes in my life. Never have I heard a professor play opera. Classical instrumental? Yes, most of the time. Sometimes jazz. Often his or her own compositions. But never opera.

    The person who reviews opera should primarily be into opera: either a singer, or a voice teacher or at least an opera fan. The rule of thumb for the reviewer should be to devote at least 60% of the review to singers and the remainder to everything else. I remember there used to be reviewers like that here. I’m sorry for such an angry comment but after reviews that I mentioned I’m not surprised that we’re having such a hard time attracting major opera stars to Boston. People usually prefer to visit places where they are appreciated. Mr. Domingo and Ms. Flemming have no problems with singing in Houston in Dallas and even in little Santa Fe but not in our highly educated Boston. I find this embarrassing but after reviews like the ones of Falstaff and Iolanta I’m not surprised.

    Comment by Alexander Maly — June 2, 2012 at 1:37 pm

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