October 8, 1998

An Evening Russian in Spirit and Sound

The program that the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin played at Merkin Concert Hall on Tuesday evening combined distinctively Russian coloration and spirit with a kind of internationalism that kept Moscow at its heart. Included were works by Miecyslaw Vainberg, a Pole who spent most of his life in Moscow; Salim Krymski, a composer from Azerbaijan who was represented by a collection of Jewish dances, and Steven Gerber, an American who lives in New York City but whose Serenade (1990) was filled with the wintry imagery that generations of Russian composers have made their country's musical vernacular. Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, which closed the main program (there were also several encores), seemed chosen as a definitive assertion of the Russian style in its most classical form.

This Moscowcentric internationalism was not surprising, given the ensemble's genesis. Its founder and conductor, Misha Rachlevsky, was born and trained in Moscow, but left the Soviet Union in 1973, settled in the United States in 1976 and was the director of the New American Chamber Orchestra from 1984 to 1991. He assembled the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin that year.

At Merkin, the ensemble of 18 young string players sounded fresh and energetic, and they responded to Mr. Rachlevsky with an admirable flexibility. The Vainberg Chamber Symphony No. 3 (Op. 151) was composed in 1989 and at first seems influenced by the quasi-mystical style that has been so prevalent among Eastern European composers in recent decades. Like the works of Part and Gorecki, the opening movement is slow, tonal and overwhelmingly melancholy. Other movements, though, speak in the language of earlier decades: the allegro molto, in particular, has the sharp-edged chords, racing strings lines and slight melodic acidity of 1940's and 50's vintage Shostakovich (with whom the composer was friendly) and Prokofiev.

Mr. Rachlevsky and his players were attuned to these changes in attitude. The mystical movements were played as warm bath of Romantic string sound; the allegro molto and the neo-Baroque Andantino finale had a brighter and sometimes more steely quality. Juxtaposed as they were, the past and present styles seemed closely linked. Similarly, in Mr. Krymski's Seven Jewish Dances (1990), the musicians distinguished nicely between the dances propelled by melodies with a Middle Eastern accent and those that sounded specifically Eastern European. But when Mr. Krymski drew the two strains of Jewish music together, the players provided the ground on which they could meet.

Mr. Gerber's two -movement Serenade was slightly more chromatic than the Vainberg, but its brisk triplet bowings, dark coloration and other touches gave it a sense of being tailor-made for Russian players. The Kremlin musicians gave it a vibrant reading, but it was eclipsed - as was the rest of the program for that matter - by the energy with which they threw themselves into the Tchaikovsky. By then a listener expected lush textures from this group. The surprise was the sense of grandeur they brought to Tchaikovsky's arching, bittersweet lines.