Alice Tully Hall
Alexander Scriabin: Piano Concerto
Aram Khachaturian: Violin Concerto
Bela Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra
Alexei Podkorytov (piano)
Mikhail Simonyan (violin)
American Russian Young Artists Orchestra
Leon Botstein (conductor)
During the height of anti-Nazi furor, Roy Harris dedicated a piece to “our Soviet brethren” and paid a heavy toll some years later as a celebrated victim of the McCarthy committee. In the iciest days of the cold war, legends grew around the performers, particularly Sviatoslav Richter, who were hidden from the outside world by the impenetrable wall of geopolitics. Once cultural détente was reestablished, Isaac Stern quipped that “they can send us their violinists from Odessa, and we can send them our violinists from Odessa”. Times are different now and the pendulum has swung far to the cozy side, making the mission, as it should always have been, of the American Russian Young Artists Orchestra a purely musical one. Bringing together some of the best and brightest from the conservatory ranks, it convenes early every summer to study and present a few selected works on both sides of the Northern hemisphere. This season the leader is Leon Botstein and the featured composition is one designed to highlight each and every player in the large assemblage.
Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra is unique in conception in that all players are soloists and every section has its turn to exhibit its melodic skills. Not only is this germane to this type of youthful convocation, but it also calls to mind the inherent psychological problem of the modern professional large ensemble: every back bencher was originally the star of their own local school and now must subsume their ego to the greater good of the whole. No matter how disciplined and well prepared a professional orchestra may sound, you can bet your bottom dollar that some of its members are actually postal workers in evening dress. But in the Bartok, all have the opportunity to shine, and in a fine student performance the whole is gloriously more satisfying than the sum of its parts.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Botstein concert without at least one rarity. Scriabin’s Piano Concerto is really a student work, the first significant orchestral composition of this mixed media mystic. The composer himself premiered it in Odessa in 1897 when he still thought that pianism was to be his destiny. Appropriately, the scent of youth is strong throughout. Jejune and rather hollow, the piece lacks that distinct individual voice so enthralling in the more mature Scriabin, the shade of Tchaikovsky a little too much in evidence. However, the gentle touch of the soloist and the surprisingly integrated sound of the ARYO strings more than compensated for any compositional disappointments.
The truly outstanding performance of the evening was turned in by sixteen year old Russian violinist Mikhail Simonyan, who articulated the deliciously longing melodies of Khachaturian with just the right touch of open harmonics and confident vibrato, capturing that elusive je ne sais quoi that hovers in this composer’s music somewhere between nostalgia and barbarism (an apt transition to the Bartok). Playing at a level far beyond his tender years, the cherubic Mr. Simonyan has a flair for the dramatic and a superlatively dexterous technique. Maestro was himself a young violinist around the time of the Cuban missile crisis and husbanded his prodigiously talented forces to provide a lively and lush accompaniment. This orchestra of twentysomethings is far superior to others that I have heard around town and this seems particularly remarkable considering what a short time they have had to learn each other’s moves.
Olivier Messiaen stopped scoring his From the Canyons to the Stars at 44 players because the commission for the work came from Miss Alice Tully herself and she wanted the premiere to be in her own small hall. Last evening there were many more musicians crammed onto that stage (the pianist redefined the phrase “playing on the edge”) but the result of such Malthusian conditions was an extremely joyful noise. The group is now off to Russia and Armenia and I’m sure that it will be an experience to cherish for both audience and participants alike.
Frederick L. Kirshnit