Putin speaks and an orchestra is born

Toronto Star - Toronto, Toronto will be visited by just one international symphony orchestra this season, an ensemble that owes its very existence to the most powerful man in Russia, Vladimir Putin. The year was 2003 and the celebrated Russian violinist-conductor Vladimir Spivakov had just announced on television that he would be leaving his prestigious post as conductor of the Russian National Orchestra. "Twenty minutes later my telephone rang at home," Spivakov recalled over a pre-concert dinner in Miami Beach, Fla., last week, "and it was Vladimir Putin. "He said, 'I have just listened to the news and I am not happy. Why do you want to go?' "I explained to the president that I could not work in an atmosphere where the administration takes control from the artists. He said, 'I don't want you to go abroad. All Russia loves you. Think about a new orchestra.' "Fifteen minutes later the Minister of Culture called me and said, 'I'll be in Moscow in three days. We have to talk about founding a National Philharmonic Orchestra.'" Even Spivakov looked amazed, gazing across his lobster, while recounting the breathtaking speed of the decision that now brings Russia's newest orchestra to Roy Thomson Hall for its Canadian debut on April 28, under the auspices of Show One. When Putin speaks, things obviously happen. So, over the next four months Spivakov personally auditioned about 400 players drawn from his country's leading orchestras, before choosing 100. "At our first rehearsal, I said, 'I know I have chosen very good professional people, but it is not enough. I would like to invite you to love each other, to love the public and to love the music.' I didn't say anything more and we started the rehearsal." Less than six years later, the National Philharmonic of Russia is widely regarded as one of the finest ensembles of its kind. As the pre-eminent Polish composer-conductor Krzysztof Penderecki observed, "Vladimir Spivakov has gathered the best musicians. It is a fantastic orchestra." Observing the orchestra in rehearsal and in performance in Miami's superb Knight Concert Hall, a visiting Torontonian couldn't help noticing its high morale. "Orchestras such as ours exist due to the energy of the conductor," explained principal cellist Yuri Loevsky, one of Russia's most honoured orchestral musicians and a former principal player with the Bolshoi Theatre. "I came back to Russia after working in Germany because of Vladimir Spivakov. Conductors in Russia used to be complete dictators, owning the lives of their players. He doesn't work that way. He even bought the cello I am playing." "Last year he gave me my instrument, the instrument of my dreams," echoed principal trumpeter Kirill Soldatov, a prodigiously gifted brass player who joined the orchestra while still in his teens and was heard last season in Toronto accompanying Olga Kern in Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 1 with Spivakov's other orchestra, the Moscow Virtuosi. Smiling, the trumpeter announced, "He has been like a father to me." Like the National Philharmonic of Russia, the Moscow Virtuosi owes its founding 30 years ago to the man who won the Montreal International Violin Competition in 1969. "It was after I won the Montreal Competition that I thought seriously about becoming a conductor," Spivakov recalled. "In the next four years I was not allowed to play outside the USSR. I still don't know why. I had many invitations, from Herbert von Karajan, even from Glenn Gould, who heard my Beethoven sonata performance from the competition over the radio and wanted me to come to Toronto to play with him. When I listen to his playing I still cry. It is like praying. "So in those years in the Soviet Union I studied conducting and formed the Moscow Virtuosi. The Moscow Virtuosi played the first three years underground - the Borodin String Quartet were my first desk players - until the Moscow Olympiad, when Lord Killanin came and wanted to hear some music. "I had a telephone call from the Olympic Committee to come with my group the next night to the Pushkin Museum. Lord Killanin was the first to stand and applaud and the next day Pravda (the leading official Soviet newspaper) declared the existence of the Moscow Virtuosi." People have been standing and applauding Spivakov's orchestras ever since. The evening after dining with him, I watched as a wildly enthusiastic Florida audience demanded and received four encores after a full performance at the Knight Concert Hall. Then as now, Vladimir Putin obviously knew what he was doing. William Littler

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