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Blazing Music-making

July 24, 2007

The Napa Valley's second annual Festival del Sole continued last Wednesday with another stellar performance by the Russian National Orchestra in Yountville's Lincoln Theater. Guest soloists Joshua Bell on violin and Nina Kotova on cello joined the orchestra, which was conducted by Nicola Luisotti, who has been appointed music director of the San Francisco Opera, effective with the 2009-2010 season.
The festival's planners scored a major triumph in selecting their orchestra-in-residence, the Russian National Orchestra. Established in 1990, the orchestra, under Music Director Mikhail Pletnev, quickly became one of the former Soviet Union's finest ensembles. Based in Moscow, the RNO spends a large part of each season touring Europe, Asia, and the Americas, and it boasts a growing discography.

For American listeners unaccustomed to Russian orchestral performance practices, the Russian National's performing style might, at first, seem jarring. Russian musicians often favor noticeably different instrumental colors than those preferred in American orchestras, particularly in the woodwinds and brass sections. Similarly, Russian orchestras often tend to surpass their American counterparts in terms of sheer dynamic range. The orchestra's reading of Sergei Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony featured some of the loudest orchestral playing I've ever heard, second only to select performances I attended in Moscow last year.

As a tubist and admittedly a lover of forte orchestral playing, I thought the end result in Yountville was often thrilling. The closing section of the first movement of the Prokofiev, for example, was physically compelling in terms of sheer sonic experience alone, and among the most exciting music-making I've heard in a long time. It seems that several fellow concertgoers agreed, given the rapturous applause that greeted the movement's end.
Joyful, Cinematic Ballet Music
The concert opened with music from the third scene of contemporary Italian composer Marco Tutino's ballet Richard III (1995). The music is highly cinematic and full of fascinating colors and instrumental combinations. Much of the first section consists of an Elizabethan-sounding melody and accompaniment, first sounded by the harp, then cycled throughout various sections of the orchestra. At the end of each phrase of the melody, different groups of instruments play large dynamic swells. This pattern continues for several cycles, each time with new aural permutations. The most interesting iteration came when the low brass quartet played the Renaissance-sounding tune, punctuated by shiny blocks of sound from the high strings and cymbals. Tutino's score was a joyful discovery, and I hope we hear more of his music soon.

Following the Tutino, Joshua Bell performed Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1. Bell was superb, displaying all the virtuosity that has so rightly earned him superstar status. He was particularly impressive throughout the second movement, a vivacissimo Scherzo that demands much from the soloist, who must quickly alternate between difficult bowed passages and frantic pizzicato ones. Bell negotiated the movement with ease, and the wowed audience let loose a collective sigh of delight at the movement's end.

The orchestra was impressive throughout the concerto, too. It sustained intensity throughout the motoric rhythms and ostinato accompaniments that are common to Prokofiev's style and that so easily sag if either the conductor or the orchestra relents for one second.

Following Bell's Prokofiev, Nina Kotova performed Camille Saint-Saëns' one-movement Concerto for Cello. From start to finish, the concerto was performed much faster than usual. As a result, the composer's voluptuous melodies often seemed rushed, and little of the thematic material unfolded fully. Similarly, there often seemed to be some miscommunication between Kotova and Luisotti, and at numerous points the orchestra fell noticeably behind the soloist.
Conductor Charismatic but Distracting
He showed great care in creating interesting musical phrases, and is an exciting interpreter. All of this bodes well for Bay Area audiences. Luisotti’s podium presence, though, was often distracting. He engaged in extreme physical and facial gesturing, much of which bordered on the absurd and was often hard to ignore.

My dislike of this kind of showmanship is not simply a matter of taste. Throughout several passages, Luisotti seemed consumed with miming the musical gestures in real-time. This expressive technique is often delightful for audiences, who watch the conductor dance along with the shapes of the music. On Wednesday, however, it proved detrimental to the ensemble. Being preoccupied with dancing to the music, Luisotti did not consistently provide the orchestra the basic rhythmic information it needed to predict the beat and play cleanly. The end result was frequent sloppy cutoffs, numerous entrances that weren't together, and tempo transitions that took several seconds to coalesce.

When Luisotti tempered some of his more extreme gestures, as he did during the Prokofiev symphony, the result was splendid ensemble playing. I especially admired his reading of the Allegro second movement. Luisotti selected a tempo several beats faster than the movement is usually played. The orchestra more than met the challenge, and the movement was tremendously exciting.

Whatever Luisotti might temporarily lack in stick technique, he makes up for in terms of charisma. He's obviously a passionate and caring musician. And while I found much of his gesturing problematic and distracting, I know I am in the minority. Eavesdropping on conversations during the intermission, I learned that much of the audience had fallen in love with him, precisely because of his great physical engagement with the music. A talented, charismatic young conductor bursting with energy, Luisotti is an exciting choice for the San Francisco Opera. I am eager to hear him mature artistically over the years.

William Quillen is a Ph.D. candidate in historical musicology at UC Berkeley.