The Russian National Orchestra (RNO) was founded by Mikhail Pletnev during the twilight of the Soviet Union, giving its first performance in Moscow in 1990. As their Web site puts it, the ensemble “began as a courageous demonstration of artistic freedom during the Soviet regime.” One may say that it was conceived as a direct manifestation of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policy. Indeed, Gorbachev would later be honored by the RNO with an invitation to provide a prologue, intermezzo, and epilogue for a recording of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” and Jean-Pascal Beintus’ “Wolf Tracks.” (Gorbachev was joined by Bill Clinton and Sophia Loren in this project.)
Russia has come a long way since 1990, and so has the RNO. The members of the ensemble all seem to be Russian, but the RNO profile is decidedly cosmopolitan. They have become familiar to Napa Valley with their residence at the Festival del Sole, and that residency will continue this summer. The Web page listing their guest conductors is impressive, if not downright awesome; and last night, with one of those guest conductors, Giancarlo Guerrero, they launched a fourteen-concert twelve-city tour of the United States with the first of two performances in Davies Symphony Hall as part of the Great Performers Series of the San Francisco Symphony.
There are any number of reasons why things got off to a shaky start and never really recovered. Jet lag is an obvious candidate. However, it is often the case that visiting orchestras need some time to adjust to the Davies acoustics. While RNO has performed here in the past, there may have been considerable turnover of personnel since the last visit. In addition, there is the question of how much experience the ensemble has had with Guerrero on the podium.
That last factor may best explain why the first step was a false one from which the ensemble never really recovered. Guerrero launched into the overture to Bedřich Smetana’s The Bartered Bride at a breakneck pace. The orchestra could keep up with him well enough to bring each of the entries in the opening fugue in on time, but everything else was a blur of notes with only the vaguest sense of rhythm. Guerrero conducted as if this were an Olympic event, rather than a light-hearted warm-up for a cheerful folk opera. His greatest virtue was a keen sense of crescendo; but he rarely set a context in which one of his well-timed crescendos carried much significance.
Things did not improve very much as overture progressed to concerto. The concerto was Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s familiar Opus 23, his first piano concerto in B-flat minor. The soloist was Daniil Trifonov; and the general effect was one of soloist and conductor trying to out-bombast each other. To be fair, Trifonov had a few instances of light touch; but I do not think I would run out of fingers if I tried to count them. For the most part he performed as if the concerto were an exercise in how much sound could be elicited from the piano. As a result, there was never any sense of engagement between soloist and orchestra, let alone any meaningful blend of sonorities. Trifonov’s aggressive rhetoric was better served by his encore, Franz Liszt’s transcription of Robert Schumann’s “Liebeslied” (“Du meine Seele”); but I suspect that, for all of his showmanship, even Liszt would have squirmed at the way in which Trifonov banged out the vocal line within all of the pianistic embellishments.
Things were a bit more under control after the intermission with Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 60 symphony in D major (the sixth by the current approach to counting). The more easygoing rhetoric of much of the score provided Guerrero with several opportunities to calm things down a bit. However, the overall ensemble never really came into balance; and there was really no need for one of the trombone players to aim his bell so directly at the audience (to the detriment of everyone else on stage).
Guerrero then took an encore that returned him to the racetrack. The evening concluded with another overture, this time for Mikhail Glinka’s opera Ruslan and Lyudmila. Once again the pace was a wild departure from the opening festive spirit of the opera, as if Guerrero were taking one last crack at one of those Olympic medals. The audience seemed to appreciate all of that intense energy, but I could only wonder at how the ensemble managed to keep up the pace.