Moscow Easter Festival
Russian Orthodox Easter Sunday, April 23, marks the opening of the 5th Moscow Easter Festival, an annual cavalcade of music that this year lasts until Victory Day on May 9 and extends its reach beyond the capital to some 17 other Russian cities as distant as Western Siberia.
The Rustavi Choir
The festival came into being four years ago as the brainchild of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and the renowned artistic director of the St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, Valery Gergiev. For Luzhkov, it amounted to yet another of his familiar grand gestures aimed at reassuring both himself and others that Moscow is truly a world-class city. For Gergiev, it offered an opportunity, no doubt long sought-after, to make Russia’s musical hub a part of his far-flung musical empire.
The events of this year’s Moscow Easter Festival that take place in Moscow itself follow the same basic pattern as in the past – orchestral concerts (together, as last year, with a fully-staged opera performance), choral recitals, bell-ringing from churches throughout the city, and a program of charitable events that brings music freeof- charge to retirement homes, orphanages, the students and faculty of Moscow State University and the crowds that are certain to flock to Victory Park in celebration of the May 9 holiday.
Despite certain shortcomings and a near-fiasco or two, the festival has, on balance, proved a welcome addition to the local musical scene and to the cultural life of less privileged regional centers.
Dominating this year’s festival, as before, will be Maestro Gergiev, both as conductor and as festival artistic director, and the orchestral and vocal forces of his own Mariinsky Theater. The Mariinsky’s orchestra, under Gergiev’s baton, is once again slated for a marathon run of concerts and opera performances, 14 in all this year, including those scheduled for a grueling mid-festival tour that takes it to Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Khanti-Mansiisk, Krasnodar and Rostov-on-Don.
Focus of the Moscow orchestral and operatic segment of the festival will be the celebration of important birthday anniversaries of two great composers, the 100th of Dmitri Shostakovich and 250th of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Gergiev and the Mariinsky’s orchestra have on tap four of Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies, the first of his two violin concertos (with the Novosibirsk- born virtuoso Vadim Repin as soloist) and a suite from his operetta ‘Moskva, Cheryomushki.’ In addition, the Mariinsky is bringing to town a fully staged performance Shostakovich’s opera ‘The Nose,’ in the sparkling production that premiered at its St. Petersburg home two seasons ago.
In addition to Repin, Gergiev and the Mariinsky’s orchestra will also be joined by another violinist, the Danish-born Nikolai Znaider. An appearance at last year’s festival found Znaider in disappointingly dull form. But a few months later he returned to Moscow for a sensational collaboration with Vladimir Yurovsky and the Russian National Orchestra. If he rises to the occasion as he did then, it should be a real treat to hear his festival performance of the intensely lyrical Violin Concerto of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a composer of Austrian origin still best known for Hollywood film music of the 1930s.
Piano soloists include two distinguished Soviet-born virtuosos now resident in the United States: Alexander Toradze, a frequent collaborator with Gergiev and the Mariinsky’s orchestra, and two-time Grammy Award-winner Yefim Bronfman. Each plays a concerto by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. The festival will also offer Moscow its first chance to hear 20-year-old Polish pianist Rafal Blechacz, who last October took 1st prize at the prestigious International Frederick Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Appropriately enough, he joins Gergiev and the orchestra in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
Concluding the roster of eminent soloists is famed Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel, who makes his long-awaited Moscow debut singing Wotan in a concert performance of Act III from Richard Wagner’s opera ‘Die Walkure.’
The task of honoring Mozart falls to Estonia’s Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and the Chamber Choir of Swedish Radio, which, together with vocal soloists, will give two performances of the composer’s famous Requiem and one of his lesser known ‘Coronation’ Mass.
The choral segment of the festival, as in the past, brings daily recitals in various Moscow churches by choirs from both Russia and other countries of the Orthodox faith. Nine Russian choirs are due to sing this year, along with a pair from Georgia and one each from Ukraine and Bulgaria. Most of the recitals are afternoon affairs and take place in various churches scattered throughout the city. But, as no doubt once again a highpoint of the festival, eight of the participating choirs will come together for a grand gala evening at Tchaikovsky Concert Hall.
Bells will also ring every festival afternoon from the bell towers of Moscow churches, with as many as nine to be heard on single day at successive 15-minute intervals.
Learning from bitter experience three years ago, the festival has wisely placed all of its events, except for the Victory Park concert, safely indoors. At the festival of 2003, its organizers lost a bet on the weather in presenting, on an early May evening, a staged version of Modest Mussorgsky’s opera ‘Boris Godunov’ out in the open on the Kremlin’s Cathedral Square. The evening in question, as luck would have it, proved miserably cold, wet and windy.
Following much backstage debate, the performance finally commenced two hours after its scheduled 8.00pm starting time, the audience wrapped in army blankets exhumed from the Kremlin cellars, a battered piano substituting for the orchestra’s string instruments (which would surely have been ruined by the drizzle) and Gergiev on the podium in raincoat and baseball cap. What followed seemed hardly worth the effort even had the weather chosen to cooperate, with an amateurishly thrown-together staging and voices badly distorted by the obligatory electronic amplification.
A big question hanging over this year’s festival is the shape Gergiev and the orchestra will find themselves in when they return for their final Moscow appearances after what is bound to be an exhausting mid-festival tour. Even after a less strenuous bout of travel last year, both conductor and orchestra seemed to slide downhill at their final Moscow concerts. Perhaps it was the choice of music by Ludwig van Beethoven as the festival’s focal point, music outside of the normal repertoire of both conductor and orchestra. But both fatigue and limited opportunities to rehearse must also have played some part.
As a final note, a word needs be said concerning the absence of musical Moscow from something that calls itself the Moscow Easter Festival. Gergiev and the Mariinsky are without question always welcome visitors to the city and have come up at past festivals with more than a few truly memorable performances. But their virtual monopoly on the symphonic and operatic side of things seems open to question. No other major city in the world would likely attach its name to or lavish its taxpayers’ funds on a similar sort of festival without requiring it, at least in part, to showcase local talent. And no one can possibly contend that Moscow has any shortage of gifted musicians.
As long, however, as Mayor Luzhkov is calling the shots, the festival seems almost certain to retain its present format. His effusive praise of Gergiev and the Mariinsky, recently repeated at a pre-festival press conference, has made it abundantly clear his inordinate pride in having lured them to Moscow and his intention to guarantee their regular return.
A complete schedule of the 5th Moscow Easter Festival, April 23-May 9, can be found at www.easterfestival.ru.