Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Reviews

Another Example: Music is the International Language

Review of Dmitri Hvorostovsky in concert with the Philharmonia of Russia, Constantine Orbelian, Conductor, at Davies Hall in San Francisco January 22 and at the Barbican Hall in London, February 17, 2006. Published February 24, 2006 in the Oakland Tribune and other papers of the Alameda Newspaper Group, September 30, 2005, under the headline above.

By Cheryl North

Travel, like great music, helps one experience the world in new ways and I am eager to share with you, my Bay Area readers, some recent experiences I have had involving both. My husband and I have just completed a performance with the Yale University Alumni Chorus, in which we, along with members of the Cambridge University Music Society, were "back-up" singers in a concert presented by the great Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky at Barbican Hall in London.

We were accompanied by the Philharmonia of Russia, which was conducted by San Francisco-born-and-bred Constantine Orbelian. It was a repeat of a concert at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco Jan. 22, except that the choir singing for the San Francisco event was the Pacific Boychoir conducted by Kevin Fox instead of the Yale-Cambridge singers.

The concerts' first half consisted of music from 19th century Russian opera; the second half featured what were billed as "Soviet-era popular songs."

Capacity crowds of enthusiastic listeners packed both the San Francisco and the London venues. Both elicited standing ovations, and both brought high emotion and unabashed tears from many in the audience. The most interesting thing about it was that not all the tears came from the Russian-speaking members of the audience.

The less familiar of the operatic songs sung by the golden-voiced Hvorostovsky were Aleko's Aria from Rachmaninoff's opera of that name, "Do Not Weep, My Child" from Anton Rubinstein's The Demon and "Vindex's Epithalamium" from Rubinstein's opera Nero. More well-known was Borodin's gorgeous "No rest, no sleep" from the opera Prince Igor.

Hvorostovsky imbued each with thoughtful dramatic credibility and the suave, consummate musicianship that audiences and critics alike have come to expect of him. The sheer beauty and brightness of his voice gleams throughout its formidable range like the gold domes topping Russian churches. He makes few gestures while singing; he just simply stands and pours out shafts of exquisite sound.

One of the reasons for this is no doubt his incredible breath control. He can sustain a note so long that one wonders that he is does not go deep-sea diving in his spare time. Another reason for his singularly beautiful tone is likely due to genes inherited from his father (who like Dmitri, has a shock of thick hair prematurely snow-colored) and who is also an accomplished singer. But while Papa Hvorostovsky is a chemical engineer as well as a singer, young Dmitri actually began his musical life as an aspiring concert pianist and even won a piano competition or two in his youth.

The Philharmonia musicians performed a rousing "Procession of the Nobles" from Rimsky-Korsakov's Mlada; Tchaikovsky's "Polonaise" from his Eugene Onegin and Mussorgsky's "Dawn on the Moscow River" from his opera Khovanshchina. During the London performance, they also performed walzes by Shostakovich and by Khachaturian.

Founded by Maestro Orbelian in the year 2000, the Philharmonia is an expansion of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. It includes some of Russia's finest musicians, including concertmaster Alexander Mayorov and the accomplished Elena Kulygina, assistant concertmaster. Others are superlative harpist Natalia Shameeva; first-chair trumpet Vladislav Lavrik; principal cellist Alexander Zagorinsky; principal horn, Stanislav Davydov, and more.

Orbelian leads with passion and precision, but like Hvorovsky, with a minimum of physical histrionics. It seems that his eyes and eyebrows do much of the work cueing the musicians while his hands, sans baton, beat a steady rhythm.

The songs in the program's second half were of a totally different genre. Some would even call them, "controversial." I am old enough to remember the terrific animosity, and even terror, felt by those of us in the Western world toward the Soviet Russia of the Cold War period. Considering the depth of emotions and sufferings of peoples and countries subsumed during that grim period, it is understandable that many would be repulsed by anything described as "Soviet era" songs.

Also identified as songs of the "Great Patriotic War," the term the Russians use to describe World War II, these songs summoned up the highest thrills at both performances. Even those songs written long after the end of the war, like "The Cranes" from 1969 and "Somewhere Far Away," the title music for a 1973 television series, entitled 17 Moments of Spring, depicted "Everyman's" collective experience of the loss, longing, suffering and destruction brought about by war ANY war.

The songs were brilliantly arranged and orchestrated by pianist Evgeny Stetsyuk, who, along with his fellow members of the folk ensemble "Style of Five," joined the orchestra in accompanying Hvorostovsky. Some had the character of cabaret, while others were heartbreaking laments and prayer-like peaens as they reflected a wide range of deeply human emotions emotions not at all limited to one nationality. In them, one finds grief coupled with hope, love with longing, and sweet memories from a lost past and dreams of a happier future.

One didn't have to understand Russian to understand their universal message.

While it's true that some of these songs might have been initially encouraged for Soviet propaganda purposes during the war, the human realities and relevance of their content, along with the very particular Russian penchant for soulful melody and sombre minor-key harmony, carried them into the realm of universal experience.

Following the London performance, Dmitri explained to an assembled group that he was initially concerned that the songs might speak too specifically to the Russian experience. He told of his own family's losses, which included the death of an especially beloved grandfather in the war. It was the tender stories and songs of his grandmother that awoke in a young Hvorostovsky his initial sensitivity to human suffering and loss.

In his quiet, gentle speaking voice, he said, "While at first I was worried that the songs might be too Russian, the wonderful response of the audiences, and of course, the songs themselves, convinced me that they were for all humanity."

This review and other reviews of Dmitri Hvorostovsky's spring 2006 concerts with the Philharmonia of Russia are on the Hvorostovsky website,

Credit for photos below, from the Barbican Hall Concert February 17, 2006: Roberto Martinez, for the Yale Alumni Chorus

Dmitri Hvorostovsky

Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Constantine Orbelian

The Ensemble: Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Constantine Orbelian, the Philharmonia of Russia, and the Yale Alumni Chorus plus singers from the Cambridge University Music Society, in the Barbican Hall

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