November 6, 2001

Kremlin Chamber Orchestra displays control, cohesiveness
by Craig Smith

When ticking off desirable musical traits, it's easy to forget the most important: being cohesive emotionally as well as sonically. If everyone's not on the same page in the heart as well as the score, all the chops in the world won't hide the deficit.

The Kremlin Chamber Orchestra scored on both counts with their Sunday matinee for the Santa Fe Concert Association. Musically and technically they were almost always near the top of the tree; and under founder Misha Rachlevsky, they projected an almost frightening intensity born of controlled emotion and intellectual rigor.

That combination gave the concert experience a curious disconnect. On the one hand, the sound was luscious and the structure of each piece clear as day. On the other, the players' concentration was so ferocious they felt like commandos storming a position.

Or perhaps it's more accurate to say they suggested a band of monks and nuns involved in exceedingly strenuous devotions. A young band too: The players average about 30, but they came onstage with a non-nonsense attitude and none of the insouciance that even a well-disciplined U.S. orchestra displays.

Adding to the monastic feeling, the men were in black concert dress and the women in either black or dove gray. Once seated, they moved very little as they poured out waves of sound in response to Rachlevsky's cues. The contrast between ascetic appearance and lush tones was startling. This is a well-rehearsed, perhaps even overrehearsed body.

Rachlevsky, who founded the Kremlin in 1991, appears to focus on 19th and 20th century string music, including arrange-ments of string quartets and sextets for larger ensemble (the group lists 18 members and fielded 16 here). The group's Web site,, lists 14 CDs and only one Baroque work: Vivaldi's Four Seasons.

Max Reger's Lyric Andante let the Kremlin show off their command of soft playing and graceful lyricism, and it was a lovely experience. The ear was soothed and the spirit pleased. Rachlevsky succeeded in making Reger's multi-layered lines come out clearly.

Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen was well played and had excellent solo work from within the group. But there was little apparent enjoyment of Strauss' whipped-cream lavishness of sound. Part of the problem is that Metamorphosen is Strauss at his most meandering. The piece covers more ground than a cross-country runner and tends to break down under its own weight, no matter how assuredly approached.

The second third of the program showcased two unfamiliar works by 19th-century Russian composers. Anton Arensky's Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky was played with sterling sound and nice forward motion, as was Vasily Kalinikov's commonplace but competent Serenade.

Prokofiev's Visions Fugitives, Op. 22, originally for piano, pleased me less. The Kremlin gave it a fine reading, but couldn't quite achieve the infinite control Prokofiev demands for these 20 tiny sound essays. Each player had his or her line under command, but the outer edges blurred despite Rachlevsky's minutely detailed conducting.

For the final third of the concert, the audience got to vote on which work to hear. The choice was Dvorak's Serenade for Strings, Op. 22, which received a vigorous, somewhat one-dimensional reading. Some of the violin scales were smeared and the piece was more propulsive than poised; nonetheless the Kremlin's energy carried them through.