MORE MUSIC : Russian Virtuoso Capitalizes on Glasnost to Found Orchestra

Kenneth Herman is a free-lancer who writes about music for The Times Orange County Edition.

The image of the Russian virtuoso is a familiar icon in the West. From Rachmaninoff to Heifetz to Horowitz, Russian performers have combined awe-inspiring technical skills with soulful interpretations that seem to emanate from the primordial spirit of the Russian people.

In this post- glasnost era, Mikhail Pletnev has added another wrinkle to the icon, that of musical entrepreneur. In addition to his credentials as a virtuoso (he won the gold medal at the 1978 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, at age 21), Pletnev founded Moscow's first independent (i.e., not state-run) symphony orchestra, the Russian National Orchestra.

Today in Pasadena, he is launching the 2-year-old ensemble's first North American tour, which will end later this month at Carnegie Hall. Sponsored by the Orange County Philharmonic Society, the orchestra will perform at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Monday night.

To hear Pletnev tell of the founding of his orchestra (Moscow's first since the State Symphony was started in the mid-1930s), the process was blissfully uncomplicated.

"I just announced that I was determined to make my symphony orchestra an independent orchestra," he explained from his apartment in Moscow. "I wanted to achieve a large symphonic ensemble of 120 that would maintain the intimate, precise attitude toward music-making that you find in the best string quartets and other chamber music ensembles. I also told my musicians we would make their lives easier and better by giving them enough money on which to live."

Pletnev collaborated with Tatyana Sukhacheva, the head of Studio Moscow, one of the first private arts management firms to emerge after Gorbachev opened the Russian economy to cooperative business ventures in 1988. Sukhacheva had built her fledgling firm promoting popular music; by 1990, she was looking for other clients. The combination of her capitalistic management acumen and Pletnev's musical vision resulted in the birth of the Russian National Orchestra that November.

To help underwrite the venture, Pletnev put up $200,000 of his own. But he and Sukhacheva also followed the traditional Western model and secured sponsors, including a newly formed private Russian bank, Credobank.

The orchestra has also set up the California-based Russian Arts Foundation to garner hard U.S. currency. According to the orchestra's general counsel, arts lawyer Rick Walker of San Francisco, the foundation's board includes politicians Mikhail Gorbachev, Edward Heath and Helmut Schmidt, as well as San Francisco philanthropist Gordon Getty.

Pletnev is convinced that in the present turbulent Russian economy, classical musicians need to learn to find their own means of support, "not to rely on the support of the government as they had in the past. This is a very difficult period, and most people don't have time to pay much attention to culture now."

According to Pletnev, the orchestra's first concerts in Moscow were well-received, impressing pianist Ivo Pogorelich, who invited Pletnev and his players to participate in his music festival at Bad Worlshofen, Germany, in June 1991. The festival provided the springboard for the orchestra's first European tour, which included performances in Italy, Spain and Israel.

Last year also saw the orchestra's first recording, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 ("Pathetique") for the Virgin Classics label. Britain's Gramophone magazine called the recording "something to get excited about"; Classic CD described it as "electrifying."

Unlike many of his celebrated Russian colleagues--from pianist Bella Davidovich to conductor Maxim Shostakovich--Pletnev said he never felt the urge, during the bad old days of the Communist regime, to use his musical credentials to defect to the West.

"I know that it sounds unusual, but it was never that bad for me under the old system. As a pianist, I felt great admiration from my audiences, and I always played to full houses. I can't say that I suffered, although I know that some people did suffer under the old system. I did not like it, but it was part of life then. Now, it is better, of course. It is as if we can finally paint with other colors."

He is bringing an all-Russian program to Costa Mesa on Monday: Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 ("Classical"), Scriabin's "Poem of Ecstasy" and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5. He is an ardent champion of Scriabin's orchestral music, which never has been a staple of Western orchestras.

"I think the 'Poem of Ecstasy' is one of the greatest pieces of Russian music," he said. "It's sad that it is rarely played in the West--I don't even know a good recording of it.

"In spite of the apparent French influence in Scriabin's music, the 'Poem' is a very Russian piece. Scriabin never felt it necessary to ornament his music with traditional Russian tunes, but it still has an unmistakable Russian accent. It's like the writings of (Vladimir) Nabokov. He wrote in English, but his way of thinking is very, very Russian."

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