San Diego Spotlight : Soviet Pianist Predicts Defections Will Continue

The effects of perestroika on the Soviet Union's musical culture may be too late to stave off the continuing flow of defecting musicians, according to Nicolai Petrov, the visiting Soviet pianist who performed with the San Diego Symphony last weekend.

"It is a paradoxical situation," Petrov said. "In all areas of the arts--in cinema, in the theater, in literature and poetry--the artists and their work stay in the Soviet Union. The musicians, however, still flow from the Soviet Union, even more intensely than before."

A chain smoker whose fluent English is as decisively articulated as is his burly keyboard technique, Petrov sat at the far end of a vacant Symphony Hall conference room offering his candid views without bitterness or resignation.

"Since this year we already lost 12 top musicians--some of them defected and some of them signed contracts to work out of the country," he said. "Since the third wave of emigration that started in the 1970s, we have lost about 600 musical families. Of these, at least 30 or 40 represent the golden fount of Russia. Now, they are beginning to return to perform, artists such as (pianist) Bella Davidovich and (pianist-conductor) Vladimir Ashkenazy. Now, they are able to return, but they have been away so many years."

Although Petrov has just completed his fifth musical visit to the United States--he has already made the obligatory Carnegie Hall debut and has played with orchestras in Boston, Atlanta and Seattle--he made it clear that he has no desire to join the long list of Soviet emigres.

"I will be glad to spend a substantial amount of time in this country," he said, "but I will still live in my country. It's not that I am a patriot--I simply have a limited circle of people, persons, and things without which my life would not be fit."

Petrov has a decidely independent streak. Since 1987, he has had a London agency book all of his foreign engagements for him. Customarily, all Soviet performers are booked through the giant government booking agency, Gosconcert .

"Just a few months ago, I broke all relations with the concert agency Gosconcert . I cannot work with them any more," Petrov said. "They just don't do their work--they are lazy and incompetent."

(According to San Diego Symphony concertmaster Igor Gruppman, who negotiated the appearance of the Soloists of Leningrad for the local Soviet arts festival, a number of competing agencies have recently sprung up in the Soviet Union because of Gosconcert 's inefficiency.)

Petrov did not deny, however, that some improvements have been made.

"I will say, of course, that a lot of stupid, insensitive restrictions now don't exist any more."

From Frank Zappa to Philip Glass. KPBS-FM(89.5) is tipping its hat to American Music Week all week long with a series of portraits of American composers aired at 11 p.m. Tonight's program, called "Barking Pumpkins," features cross-over musician Frank Zappa. The program will include commentary by conductor Zubin Mehta, composer Pierre Boulez, and Zappa's own group, the Mothers of Invention.

Tomorrow's segment will feature rock star and sometime avant-gardist David Byrne. "The Chairman Dances," an ode to minimalist John Adams will air Thursday. Friday's final offering of the series will celebrate the 10-year history of New Music America, notably the contributions of Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

Top brass. "Words on Music," the San Diego Symphony's regular pre-concert lecture series, usually features local musicians

and members of various university music faculties as guest lecturers. From time to time, even a local music critic has taken the lecture podium set up in the lower lobby of Symphony Hall.

Tonight, Wesley Brustad, the orchestra's executive director, will hold forth one hour before the Soloists of Leningrad's 8 p.m. Symphony Hall performance. Brustad is one of the few Westerners who have heard this relatively new Soviet chamber orchestra. (They make their Western debut here tonight.) When Brustad went to the Soviet Union with San Diego Mayor Maureen O'Connor in 1988, he heard the ensemble perform. Not surprisingly, these musicians have highlighted the orchestra's Soviet offerings during the festival.

Nothing like a full house. San Diego Opera's "Boris Godunov," the opening event of San Diego's Soviet arts festival, proved a smash hit with local opera buffs. The company reported that the average Civic Theatre house for all five performances was 99.4% sold. Last year, the company averaged 94% houses for its four-opera season.

Once the favorable reviews were in, standing room tickets for "Boris" did a brisk business. On the production's closing night, 78 of the 84 available standing room places were sold. When part-time pollster and general director Ian Campbell asked patrons in the standing-room ticket line why they had waited until the last minute to get a "Boris" ticket, they told him they were returning for a second hearing of the classic Russian opera. San Diego Opera had presented "Boris" only once before the Soviet arts festival: a memorable 1972 production with noted American bass Norman Treigle in the title role.

Chorus to Chorus. When Don Hughes attended the opening night of San Diego Opera's "Boris Godunov," he was impressed with the fine singing of the opera chorus. The critics heaped praise on chorusmaster Martin Wright's intrepid singers, but Hughes came up with a more tangible accolade. Because he is the promoter who is bringing the Red Army Chorus to San Diego this week, Hughes invited every member of the opera's chorus to attend a performance of the visiting singers and orchestra.

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