It is not often that a concert exclusively programming classical music written in the past 30 years manages to elicit dramatically strong reactions in press and audiences alike. Last Wednesday's Post-Soviet Tapestries evening with the London Philarmonic Orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski, hosted by the Royal Festival Hall, was one such evening. The discrepancies among opinions started prior to the performance itself - at the box office.
The worries of Mischa Maisky regarding attendance turned out to be unfounded. If perhaps the press was not expecting such an obscure set of composers to fare so well at the box office, most newspapers covered this event revealing contrasting approaches to the concert's programme.
In general, it seemed that the press was not able to wholeheartedly share the audience's heated relish of the music on offer. In fact, two out of the three works involved got enthused applause and a good few standing ovations from members of the audience. Although, these discrepancies in the reactions make it even more interesting to reflect on the critics' take on this event.
One recurring issue in the press coverage is the detection of 'bad taste', starting with Kancheli's Another Step, which The Independent's Edward Seckerson dubs as 'cheesily melodramatic', a view that is echoed by The Guardian's Erica Jeal, who hears it as 'cartoonish shock-horror'. And yet more often than not the notion of 'bad taste' is the herald of deeper issues.
Indeed The Telegraph's David Fanning, who heard the very same sounds bouncing off the RFH's walls as Jeal and Seckerson did, uses the words 'restrained and cryptic' in relation to Kancheli - which is enough to makes us suspect that Kancheli may be not quite as cheap as some would have us believe. However, Fanning also describes Yusupov's ensuing Cello Concerto as 'vulgar' in comparison-thus disagreeing with Jeal, who salvaged the Yusupov-'the more interesting piece'-in her damning review of the entire evening: another indication that the audience's clear fascination with the music should make us think.
Seckerson's diagnosis is that 'there's something unashamedly retrogressive about [Post-Soviet music]'. True, and yet not all references to the past have the ability to make us cringe. If to look back is always problematic in the twentieth century, looking back to Romanticism without covering one's tracks is always bad news. Thus Yusupov's places himself right under gun-sight with the explicitly romantic solo-versus-orchestra dynamic he employs in his Cello Concerto. On top of this, the music is dressed in the rich theatrical flair of Maisky's playing.
'Yusopov states that his concerto is a drama about the Artist in relation to the World - but the world has moved on', writes Seckerson. Fanning's description of Maisky, who 'relished [Yusupov's Cello Concerto's] many invitations to sentimentality, exhibitionism and bravado' has an impalpably derogatory tone, which is echoed by Seckerson's humorous assertion that 'when the beery Klezmer music of the scherzo-like third movement threatened to morph into Fiddler on the Roof not even the proximity of the Dies irae could wipe the scepticism off one's face.'
If the heroic struggle of individual versus society Yusupov attributes to his Concerto is old news-as Seckerson rightly points out, are we sure the modernist subject's inner struggle is much more actual? Surely it is striking that this music should come from a country whose 19th century sits less than comfortably with our more western notion of Romanticism. Indeed, the somewhat diluted Mahlerian flair of Silvestrov's 5th Symphony-the last, and most substantial work on the programme-first became sound in the Kiev of Stalinist USSR, 7 years before the fall of the Berlin wall-not quite the stuff of the 'relaxation tape' Erica Jeal hears in the long, meditative stretches of Silvestrov's score.
On the other hand, Silvestrov's score was the one thing that managed to elicit positive responses from the press, thus bridging the gap between critics and audience: Seckerson writes of an 'out of body experience', while Fanning-a long-time champion of this work-is full of praise for the sheer craftsmanship of Silvestrov's writing: 'here too is a fabulous ear for orchestral texture and layered polyharmony that few others in this category command'. Yet Erica Jeal views the almost mantric use of repetition as a woeful lack of invention: 'Silvestrov takes musical material that has, to be generous, around three minutes' mileage, and stretches it to 45'-while Fanning interprets the very same characteristic as an 'uncanny instinct for pacing over long, slow expanses, which Silvestrov shares with such masters of late-Soviet cinema as Andrey Tarkovsky'.
The disagreement between press and audience, and among the journalists themselves, is an invitation to reflection. Surely the appeals to notions of bad taste and retrogression signal a dismissal that is a little too rash: this music is not as easy to digest as the audience's rapt acceptance may suggest. All the more a reason to stay tuned.
Photo Credits: Vladimir Jurowski by Roman Gontcharov
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