March 6, 2000

Russian chamber complements art

Ronald Reagan once famously suggested that, as a cultural exchange between the superpowers, the United States might host groups such as the Bolshoi Ballet while sending the Beach Boys to the Soviet Union in return.

Judging from the first of two concerts by the Chamber Orchestra Kiremlin at the Portland Art Museum, it sounds as if we’re still getting the better end of the deal.

The orchestra, which is made up of 18 string players, all graduates of either the Moscow Conservatory or the Russian Academy of Music, is in Portland in conjunction with the museum’s Stroganoff exhibit. Sunday’s performance might not have been as exquisitely wrought as some of the works on display, but it didn’t fall far short.

Under the direction of founder and music director Misha Rachlevsky, the ensemble opened its program with a youthful sonata of Rossini. The museum’s new Whitsell Auditorium nearly strained at the seams from the sheer volume.

The mood shifted dramatically with the transition to the Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a, of Dmitri Shostakovich. The piece is better known in its original version as the String Quartet No. 8, a pained work that is highly autobiographical as it incorporates material from previous works.

Rachlevsky conducted a compelling rendition of it, unsparing in the intensity of its most searing sections, but what was most compelling was the way he chose to follow it up. It’s the kind of piece that is best followed with silence, as its effect is marred by applause, but Rachlevsky has found that asking audiences to refrain from clapping is more easily said than done. Instead, he goes directly into an orchestra version of the Contrapunctus No. 1 from Bach’s "Art of the Fugue," which, after the Shostakovich, takes on a heartbreaking aspect of loss while retaining an atmosphere of hope and beauty.

Chamber Orchestra Kremlin should be invited to return, often. Perhaps the Russians could be persuaded to take, say, Britney Spears in exchange.