Sounds Like Freedom

Greg Sandow writes about classical music for the Wall Street Journal and other publications

Mikhail Pletnev, concert pianist and conductor, seems distracted. He'll shortly join Sophia Loren at a lavish black-tie gala for the Russian National Orchestra, of which he's music director. There he'll talk about his work in serious terms. But right now, as he looks dapper and compact after a press luncheon for the RNO, his eye wanders and he answers questions with wry little one-line jokes.

Is it true, he's asked, that the RNO--billed as the first orchestra in Russia with no state funding or control--is completely independent of the government? "They let us pay taxes," he replies in English, with a faraway smile.

Pletnev founded the RNO eight years ago, when communism was tottering but still officially ruled, and when independent organizations of any kind were still a shocking novelty. Why had he taken such a step? "I am just a conductor," he answers. "I like to conduct good orchestra. RNO is good orchestra."

And did Russian musicians really leave jobs with established ensembles to join this one? "Yes," Pletnev says. "Every artist has wife saying, 'Where is the money?' But now the musician says, 'My darling, I'm going to join orchestra with young conductor whose future is not established." He shrugs.

But why did they join him?

"Ask them!" Pletnev says, breaking into a brilliant grin.

Pletnev has every reason to be confident. The RNO--which plays at the Los Angeles Music Center on Tuesday, in Palm Springs on Wednesday and in Santa Barbara on Thursday--was an instant success. It gave its debut concert in Moscow in November 1990 and on the spot was invited to London to record Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony for Virgin Classics. That recording, released in 1991, got reviews that were almost literally unbelievable.

"Should human beings be able to play like this?" asked Britain's Gramophone magazine.

With those reviews, Pletnev--whose career as a pianist began in 1978, when he won the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition at age 21--was decisively launched as a conductor. He had been known to Russian musicians before that, though, and--no wonder he grinned--that was one big reason why they joined his orchestra.

"I love Pletnev," says Rustem Gabdullin, the RNO's principal bassist, speaking with a shy smile, and apologizing often for his English. "All musicians wished to play for him."

The RNO's independence was also an attraction. Soviet orchestras were operated by the state, and the state guaranteed the musicians' salaries. But in other ways, the deal wasn't so attractive--these ensembles never publicized their concerts, for instance, typically posting just one announcement in a central place, like the Moscow Conservatory. The RNO seemed lively by comparison, proclaiming itself with banners and posters all over Moscow.

And it wasn't subject to bureaucratic whims. For 22 years before he joined the RNO, Gabdullin played in the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble inseparably linked with its conductor, Rudolf Barshai. Under Soviet rule, Gabdullin sadly remembers, "all orchestras have contract with official system, must do special things. We must play in every region, make some concerts in bad halls for 20 people, in bad district where nobody likes music."

The RNO, by contrast, plays all its concerts--20 or so in Moscow each year, plus a few in St. Petersburg, several on an annual tour down the Volga River and more on tour internationally--for people who care.

Gabdullin looks back happily to the last months of the Soviet Union, in 1990, when the RNO was formed. "It was very nice moment," he recalls, smiling again. "It was time with new ideas in Russia"--perfect for musicians like himself, who might have found work in the West but didn't want to leave home and transplant their families.

But the RNO had its problems. Early on--according to one of the irresistible stories supporters of the orchestra love to tell--the RNO was so poor, the musicians had just one pencil and had to pass it around to make corrections in their parts.

Some New Yorkers, hearing the RNO on this tour, thought the brass section sounded tinny. Asked about this, Sergei Markov, the orchestra's executive director, rubbed his thumb and forefinger together in the international symbol for money.

"We need better instruments," he says, adding that not only could the brass players use them, but also the woodwinds, basses and most of the violins.

And when it comes to the RNO's administrative difficulties, Markov is emphatic: "Finances are short. Orchestra management is business, but in Russia, circumstances in business are bad. People say but don't do."

"Music once was free as air," Markov says sarcastically, recalling the days when the Soviet government provided everything. "Now nobody understands that orchestra management is a business. Nobody will understand till music is gone."

If RNO's business side can't thrive at home, it's natural that the orchestra would seek support abroad. Enter black-tie galas in New York, Sophia Loren and a San Francisco lawyer named Rick Walker. Walker, a partner who practiced entertainment law for Bronson, Bronson & McKinnon, first heard of the RNO when a New York colleague asked him to donate a few hours to advise the orchestra on its first recording deal.

A few hours turned into seven years, and now Walker describes himself as the RNO's general counsel and world manager, as well as the head of the Russian Arts Foundation, a nonprofit entity organized to raise money for the RNO. Walker had bonded with Pletnev: "He's someone not affected by any of the trappings of modern life. He's completely pure, a soul from a different century."

But the orchestra needed money even more than purity. In typical Russian fashion, it received no income from ticket sales (all of that went to the halls where the orchestra performed). Walker was able to arrange a quick tour of Sicily, where the proceeds would accrue to the RNO's bottom line.

In the long run, though, the RNO needed more.

"There was no basis for earned income in Russia or for contributed support," Walker says. "The heart of this orchestra was in Russia, but we needed to locate its financial home in the West."

He put together more international tours, got the orchestra a far more visible record contract with one of the top classical labels, Deutsche Grammophon, and, most of all, organized international financial support. International sources, including Russian subsidiaries of multinational corporations, now account for fully 90% of the RNO's contributed income; this, apart from fees for touring, pays for nearly all the orchestra's $1.6-million annual budget (a bare-bones figure, which would have to be higher if guest artists and sometimes even the orchestra's own musicians didn't sometimes donate their services).

Walker brought Loren on board after meeting her son, Carlo Ponti Jr., himself a conductor. When some of the RNO's patrons visited Rome, Loren hosted a dinner for them, and once she met Pletnev, a knot was tied.

"She's the type of artist who can see deep inside someone," says Walker, in a quiet voice. "And Pletnev is the real thing. "

Though, of course, the corporations that support the RNO--among them Aetna, Exxon, Chase Manhattan, Coca-Cola, Mars and Mercedes-Benz, some of which even have representatives on the orchestra's board--might have different motives. Many of them, Walker says, do business in Russia and are glad to find a cause that can help make them visible there.

This "enlightened self-interest," in Walker's words, extends to his own firm, which pays his salary while he spends full time on the RNO. "They get contact with potential clients," Walker explains.

Now cut to the black-tie gala benefit, at New York's lavish, gilded Metropolitan Club. The event honors Gordon P. Getty, a Getty Oil heir, composer, economist and a key supporter of the RNO (and many other musical groups).

Some 180 people have attended, paying at least $500 for the privilege. Many of them are Getty's friends, who include some of the richest and most socially prominent party-goers in New York.

Richard L. Huber, the chairman and chief executive of Aetna, is asked why his company is the largest corporate supporter of the RNO's American tour. In reply, Huber urges a reporter to touch his arm. "I want you to feel," he roars, "that I don't have an altruistic bone inside me." Aetna supports the RNO, he says, because when he takes clients to their concerts, there are stories to tell. Does he mean the "poor orphan" tales about just one pencil for the whole orchestra? "Yes!" he answers, with a huge, happy smile.

Getty speaks feelingly about the RNO's "Pathetique" CD, which introduced him to the group, and about how touched he was when Pletnev called on him, to ask if he might have composed any music that the RNO could play.

Pletnev says a few words, sounding modest and no longer wry. He's grateful for any support, he says, and he praises Getty's work. (Earlier, making a face, the conductor had said he doesn't care for contemporary composition. But Getty's romantic style apparently appeals to him.) He also plays the piano and--the faraway look gone as he focuses on music--doesn't seem distracted at all.

Loren, designated as the gala's international chair, doesn't say a word in public. She hardly needs to; her name and her presence, regal and glowing, have helped attract the glittering crowd. Privately, however--after rejecting, with an imperious wave, a request to be photographed with staff of the Metropolitan Club--she explains why she's there.

"I have not supported the arts before," she says, "but when I do it, I am happy. Now I will do more."

She chose the RNO, she says, because Pletnev is a "prodigy," meaning not an impressive 6-year-old, of course, but a stupendous force of nature.

Earlier, Pletnev had noted something sad that happens to an orchestra famous for being Russian: When it tours America, it is allowed only to play Russian music. That, he says, is what the people who book it demand, though he would prefer more varied repertory: "I would like to conduct a Bruckner symphony."

But this is just one of the many compromises life requires. And the goal--keeping the RNO alive in Russia--is surely worth it.

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Russian National Orchestra, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. Tuesday, 8 p.m. $6-$63. (213) 365-3500.

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