Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Interviews

Dmitri Hvorostovsky Interviews and Review
from articles published in ANG newspapers, now Bay Area News Group

Russian Baritone Wholeheartedly Embraces his "Boccanegra" Role
Interview in Classical Music Column, Preview Section, Bay Area News Group, August 29, 2008

Seated in the single chair in front of the security man's cubicle in the lonely lobby of the Zellerbach rehearsal area in Davies Symphony Hall, I had almost given up the possibility of an interview with grand opera's gold medal-level baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Communication problems and hours of phone tag had stretched the time for our prospective interview from 2:30 p.m. on into the early evening.

The great singer is in town with his beautiful Italian-born wife, Florence, their 4-year-old son, Maxim, and 10-month-old daughter, Nina, to begin rehearsals for his starring role in San Francisco Opera's gala opening night and subsequent productions of Giuseppe Verdi's great 1857 opera, "Simon Boccanegra."

Baritones generally need to be at the pinnacle of their capabilities to handle Verdi roles. A good Verdi baritone requires not only a clear higher register and a lyrical quality, but considerable heft and power as well. One writer used the apt words "dark color, bite and snarl" to describe the required voice.

Hvorostovsky's near-perfect Verdi baritone had its beginnings 45 years ago in Krasnoyarsk, an industrial/scientific center in Siberia with a population of more than a million. An only child, Hvorostovsky inherited his mop of prematurely silver hair and black eyes and eyebrows from his still-youthful-looking father, who is a chemical engineer as well as an accomplished baritone himself. His mother, a slim, elegant woman with lovely expressive eyes, is a retired medical doctor.

During a telephone interview I had with Dmitri in the budding days of his career 11 years ago, he said "My parents both worked when I was a child, so I was raised by my grandmother, a deep and wonderful woman who spoiled and cherished me." He went on to say, "I always wanted to be in music. I was bad at math, Russian and literature and I guess I was somewhat of a wild boy. I used to play soccer and liked boxing and swimming. But through it all, I loved music."

He attended the Krasnoyarsk High School of Arts, where he studied voice with Yekaterina Yofel and took classes in music theory, conducting and piano. Interestingly, it was his playing of a couple of Gershwin's virtuosic preludes for piano that won him his initial First Prize.

"After that, I began winning many competitions in voice — always first prizes," he had emphasized during that long-ago interview.

Suddenly, the Zellerbach lobby silence was broken by the loud clatter of hurried footsteps dashing up the stairs from the hall's subterranean sound-proofed rehearsal studios. I looked up to see the man in the flesh, looking exceedingly fit in his body-hugging blue jeans.

With such sexy, smoldering good looks, no wonder he landed on People magazine's list of the "World's 50 Most Beautiful People." I could not help but remember a Russian girl's description of him when I was in Moscow a few years back: "He is the Russian Elvees Prezley!"

Rousing from my reveries, I stammered out, "Uh "... I'm Cheryl. Do we "... uh "... have an interview?" His face lit up into a supernova smile as he affirmed, "Of course!" We were soon walking together across the street to his Opera House dressing room, during which stroll, in impressive, gentlemanly fashion, he adjusted his long-limbed pace to my slower one. When we arrived, he gestured for me to take the room's single upholstered chair while he pulled up a hard-backed one for himself.

"I very much like the character of Simon Boccanegra," he began. "I admire Boccanegra's innate humanity, diplomacy and peace-making character. The themes brought out in the opera are still modern and important — the idea of a united society and country, but yet dealing with the political ambitions and difficult personal egos of its characters. It is a role, like life itself, that is both complex and fulfilling."

Becoming even more serious and intense, he expressed his feelings that it is important not to just rest on one's laurels, but to remain open to new experiences.

"Everything in my career seems to happen just at the right time," he said. "A few years back, Constantine Orbelian, the conductor of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, suggested that we collaborate to perform and record some of the famous ballads popular in Russia during World War II. At first, I was not interested — but I finally consented to give it a try."

The results have been astonishing. "I have to say, with full feeling, that almost every family in Russia suffered terrors, deaths and losses during WWII. After millions viewed them on television, in person, or during our tours through Russia and the West, there seemed to be a new wave of patriotism and gratitude. The music helped people remember what they and others had gone through."

And, sounding more like a mature humanitarian than a matinee idol, he added, "As long as the people have memories of the past, they will have a future."

2008 Poster, San Francisco Opera

Voice of the Century?

Interview in Alameda Newspaper Group column published May, 1997

There will be an opportunity this week to welcome the San Francisco Symphony back from the successes of its recent European Tour and to check out a rumor. A number of people who have heard the young Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, have acclaimed him as having a voice that only happens about once a century.

Hvorostovsky will appear, along with the beautiful Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina, with the Symphony, under the baton of guest conductor Mario Bernardi, in concerts at 8 p.m. May 24, 26, and 27 at Davies Symphony Hall, corner of Van Ness Avenue and Grove Street, San Francisco. The two will perform selections from Donizetti's �La Favorita,� Rossini's �Il Barbiere di Siviglia,� Saint-Saens� �Samson et Delila,� Rimsky-Korsakov�s �The Tsar's Bride,� as well as various operatic solos.

It won't be the 32-year-old baritone's first trip to San Francisco, however. During a telephone interview from his New York hotel room last Monday, he explained in fluent, barely accented English. �I came to San Francisco about six years ago to sing with a group called �Beyond War.� It's one of my favorite cities - and as many Russians, I'm very nostalgic and want to return. It was my first United States City.�

He also explained his English proficiency. �During my trips to the United States, I usually stayed with Americans who did not speak Russian. I had to chat with them every night after my concerts.� �And then, of course,� he continued, �I bought a house in London where my wife Svetlana (a ballerina) and I have been living for the past year. This too has helped my English.�

Hvorostovsky was born in Krasnoyarsk, an industrial/scientific center in Siberia with a population of over a million. An only child, his father is a chemical engineer and his mother, a doctor. �I'm a little bit spoiled,� he said. �My parents both worked, so I was raised by my grandmother, who spoiled and cherished me. I miss her a lot, but Thank God, she is still living.� Although his father has not officially retired, he, like many of his scientist/engineer colleagues in the new Russia Federation, is presently unemployed. �My father hasn't received a pay (check) for about a half year. He hasn't got money, but Thank God, he's got me,� said Dmitri. �I can send him and my family money from my concerts.�

Since the elder Hvorostovsky hasn't been working as an engineer lately, he has resumed his singing career. Also a baritone, he performed a recital series in Italy last summer. Says Dmitri, �My father studied music mostly by himself and he is very good. As far back as I can remember, I was always watching and listening to him doing his vocal exercises. I took every opportunity to learn from him.�

�There was never any conflict about what I wanted to be when I grew up,� he continued. �I always wanted to be in music. I was bad at math, Russian, and literature. I used to play soccer and liked boxing and swimming. I guess I was somewhat of a wild boy. But through it all, I loved music.�

He attended the Krasnoyarsk High School of Arts where he studied with voice with Yekaterina Yofel and took classes in music theory, conducting and piano. After seven years, his piano playing became so proficient that he won a first prize for a performance of the Gershwin Preludes. �After that I began winning many competitions in voice � always first prizes,� he emphasized.

Hvorostovsky met Borodina eight years ago when both were first prize winners in the Glinka Competition in the Soviet Union. Although they subsequently went different ways, they remained close friends and occasionally met when their touring or recording schedules overlapped. It was during a recent recording session with Philips that they hit on the idea of performing concerts together.

Hvorostovsky is not shy about his strong points, nor does he deny his vocal limitations. �I have very good breath control,� he says. �That is one of my major strengths and it allows me to sing pianissimo in the high register. But I'm five years away from singing Wagner's Ring. Verdi also comes later.�

Meanwhile, he maintains a daunting touring and recording schedule. This next year he will sing Figaro in San Francisco's production of �Il Barbiere di Siviglia,� Valentin in Gounod�s �Faust� with the Chicago Lyric Opera, and �Pique Dame� at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In concert he will appear with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra with whom he hopes to do a Mahler song cycle, and in concerts at Carnegie Hall, Washington, D.C., Fort Worth, Oslo, London, Hamburg, Berlin, Cologne, Munich, Basel, Paris, Lyon and Glasgow.

Among the recordings he already has to his credit (all Philips Classics) are �Yevgeny Onegin� with Semyon Bychov, �La Traviata� with Kiri te Kanawa, Alredo Kraus, and Zubin Mehta, and �Cavalleria Rusticana� with Jessye Norman, as well two albums of Romances by Russian composers, two albums of operatic arias by Russian and Italian composers, and a soon-to-be-released album of bel canto arias by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. He has done a massively successful cross-over recording of Russian folk songs with folk orchestra called �Dark Eyes� that hit the top of the charts in Europe.

And yes� I did say he was just 32!

Review of San Francisco Symphony Concert of Wednesday, April 2, 1997

by Cheryl North, published by the Alameda Newspaper Group

If great opera composers of the past could have dealt with baritones like Dmitri Hvorostovsky, they wouldn't have given all the hero roles to tenors. The splendid Russian-born and trained Hvorostovsky joined with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony for what might become the definitive performance of Modest Mussorgsky�s �Songs and Dances of Death� Wednesday at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco.

The entire program - Toru Takemitsu's ``Requiem for Strings,'' and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, ``Pathetique,'' in addition to the Mussorgsky songs - was a musical essay on life's somber closing moments. The serious, sober mood of the evening seemed appropriate, and perhaps even healing, as conductor, musicians, and public once again assemble, following the recent strike, to rekindle their relationship.

The concert's most riveting moments were when Hvorostovsky was in command. Although only in his early 30s, he has the vocal equivalent of a Stradivarius in residence in his throat and barrel chest. This gives his voice a warm luminosity, which extends throughout his entire vocal register. When coupled with his tremendous breath control, this golden sheen is maintained through a broad range of dynamics as well.

During Wednesday's concert, he projected an incredibly pure, focused pianissimo, even in his highest register, as well as belting out ringing crescendos of untarnished beauty. He handled the Mussorgsky songs� low notes like a bass baritone and managed the clarity and ring of a tenor through the last song's gruelingly high tessitura.

Hvorostovsky's keen sense of drama and innate musicality added to the excitement produced by his voice. He sang �Lullaby,� the first of the Mussorgsky songs, with a dynamic range akin to Schubert�s �Erlkonig.� He became three distinct personas within the poignant mini-drama � by turns, the soberly direct narrator; the agitated, heartbroken mother; and, as Death itself, ominously �comforting� while singing to the mother that he can ease the child's pain and silence his crying - forever. In the second song, �Serenade,� Hvorostovsky became a deceptive, vampire-like Death as he assumed the role of a wooing knight to a young invalid woman. The Russian words, translated into English, �But at midnight, to answer her yearning, Death sings his soft serenade� and the eventual �Listen to the sweet nothings I murmur... Be still, you are mine!� could send shudders down the stiffest spine.

There was an element of cynicism in �Trepak�, the third song, as Hvorostovsky sang of Death encountering an old drunken peasant in the snowy winter woods. The cycle's most intense drama was unleashed in song 4, �Commander-in-Chief,� when Death presides over a battle and proclaims �I am triumphant now! Victor and vanquished alike I subdue.� Hvorostovsky's voice pierced like a shining blade through the dense orchestral textures simulating a barrage of artillery.

Although Mussorgsky completed the songs in early Summer, 1877, it was Dmitri Shostakovich who gave them their rich orchestration in 1962. The Symphony musicians played well throughout the work and outstandingly in several instances. Some of these occurred during the �Serenade� when the tympani ticked away life�s waning moments like a doomsday clock and the oboe provided a plaintive counterpoint to Death�s passion. Other instances of fine musicianship happened when a choir of brass assembled to intone chorale-like passages and when the lower strings achieved an almost uncanny resonance as they accompanied Death's approach to the battlefield in the final song.

MTT's interpretation of Tchaikovsky's �Pathetique� Symphony was tightly controlled, yet weighty. Conductor and orchestra achieved a sense of epic sweep that endured through the opening bassoon lament, the second movement's offbeat waltz, the mad march of the third, and on to the utter desolation of its closing notes. The Tchaikovsky panorama also featured a number of outstanding solos. There were fine solos from the principal cello, violin, and clarinet, and a splendid rise-and-shine exhilaration from the brass as the first movement swept to its close. The strings were brilliantly unified as they played the wonderful swooshes of ascending pitches in the last movement countering the descending line played with sepulchral sobriety by the horns. At the onset, the strings sounded a bit thin and the French horns were less than distinguished. But as the work progressed, things came together to create broad sweeping phrases that crested like waves of the sea before ebbing away into a simmering calm.

The Takemitsu Requiem made for a meaningful, beautiful beginning to the concert. The late Japanese composer's synthesis of Oriental and Occidental musical elements was very much in evidence as MTT and the orchestra achieved an almost impressionistic evanescence throughout the work's single movement. Although the Takemitsu work seemed atonal in 1957, in the 1990s, it rests harmoniously.

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