The National Philharmonic of Russia performs in


Orchestras to play same concerto, have Van Cliburn soloists

By Cathalena E. Burch, Arizona Daily Star, Tucson, Arizona — March 3, 2007
Italian pianist Fabio Bidini gasped when he heard Russian pianist Olga Kern would be in Tucson the night before his Tucson Symphony Orchestra debut, performing the same Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto.

"Oh, my God!" he exclaimed during a phone call Monday from Puerto Rico. "This is weird. It's never happened to me."

It's also never happened to Kern.

"This is very unusual," she said during an interview two weeks ago, days before she hooked up with the four-year-old National Philharmonic of Russia for its whirlwind U.S. tour that stops at Centennial Hall on Wednesday.

It was a fluke of scheduling on the part of the Tucson symphony and UApresents, organizers from both said. Not only are the two orchestras performing the same work, both are bringing in Van Cliburn International Piano Competition competitors as guest soloists.

"We have been saying this is a unique opportunity to hear the same piece played by two wonderful orchestras, two wonderful pianists, and both happen to be Van Cliburn winners of a similar generation," said Tucson symphony music director George Hanson.

This is Bidini's Tucson debut. The Russia-born Kern was a guest of the Tucson symphony in 2003, two years after snagging first prize in the prestigious Van Cliburn contest. Bidini finished sixth in that contest in 1993 and has been an internationally in-demand concert pianist and chamber musician since.

Although both will be playing the same concerto, expect to hear very different interpretations.

Kern says she comes at the music from a Russian perspective. She studied in a town where Rachmaninoff spent his summers composing. When she plays his music, she thinks of the streets he walked, the meadows he glanced upon, the trees, the sky.

"I feel Russian music," the 31-year-old mother of one said, her accent softened by time spent over the past several years in the U.S. "When I play his music, I'm in a completely different world, that world — Rachmaninoff's world."

Expect to hear Kern emphasize the work's romanticism and beauty with a gentle touch.

Bidini also will come with a gentle touch, but said he approaches the piece's romantic nature at arm's length.

"It's very easy to fall down into cheap romanticism. It needs to be avoided, in my point of view," Bidini said, his English wrapped in a melodic Italian accent. "It's very, very easy to get lost in the beauty and the sweetness of the piece. It's a very deep, profound piece. Of course, it's of the Romantic Era and it's full of air. But it is also full of melancholy because Rachmaninoff was a very melancholic person. He had lots of problems by that time, and he couldn't go back to Russia. It's a complex piece, but you need to forget the complexity. But most important is not to fall into the cheap romanticism."

In addition to the Rachmaninoff, both orchestras will play a work by Russian composer Shostakovich, whose 100th birthday anniversary prompted the Tucson symphony to hold a Russian festival this season. The festival concludes with the Bidini concerts.

The Russian orchestra's program also includes Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6; the Tucson symphony, which performs its concert Thursday, Friday and Sunday, will round out its program with Anton Rubinstein's music from "The Demon."
"This is one of those things where you just have the chance to say, 'Wow, what a great opportunity,' " Hanson said. "If you love Rachmaninoff, you're going to love this opportunity."

Russians' stop ends drought by visiting orchestras

Art Thomason — The Arizona Republic — Arts and Entertainment, Page 1 — Mar. 7, 2007
Thursday's performance by the National Philharmonic of Russia will end a protracted absence of notable international symphony orchestras at Valley venues.

The orchestra will take the stage in the Mesa Arts Center's Ikeda Theater with Olga Kern, one of the world's top concert pianists.

"This is our finest classical event," said Randy Vogel, the MAC's assistant director of theaters and operations. "The number of major orchestras touring the country has greatly diminished."

Jim Doumas, government affairs director for the Association of Performing Arts Presents in Washington, D.C., said American arts presenters are not bringing in foreign guest artists because of fears of cancellations and lost ticket revenue.

"There's too much uncertainty as to how long it might take to get a visa," he said.

Last year, the London Philharmonic, with conductor Kurt Masur, canceled a March concert at the MAC, citing logistical and travel issues. The last to visit the Valley was the Mexican national symphony, which came to ASU Gammage in Tempe in 1999.

What's kept many international artists from American venues since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks is more than the rising costs of travel, according to Vogel, Doumas and theater administrators.

"Everyone has to get a visa and be fingerprinted before they're allowed to come in," said Steve Potter, contracts and facilities manager for ASU Gammage. "Take that, times a 120-piece orchestra, and nobody wants to do it. It's too much trouble."

Britain's Halle Orchestra was among several international groups and artists that canceled American tours in 2006 "due in large part to U.S. State Department visa policies," Sandra L. Gibson, president and chief executive officer of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, told Congress recently.

"We're desperately trying to reduce the wait times," Doumas said.

Vogel said he wasn't aware of any visa issues that might have confronted the Russian Philharmonic, an orchestra commissioned by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He said the Mesa center is fortunate to have booked such a highly acclaimed orchestra and pianist, whose American tour includes such world-class venues as Avery Fisher Hall at New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

Kern, a Van Cliburn gold medalist and the first woman to achieve that distinction in more than 30 years, has electrified audiences throughout the world.

On Thursday, the pianist will play Sergei Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

The orchestra is led by Vladimir Spivakov, a violinist who has performed as a soloist throughout the world.

"The MAC has made the decision to book at least one major orchestra a year, and we were offered several orchestras to look at," Vogel said. "I felt that this is the best orchestra."

Tim Russell, director of orchestras at Arizona State University's School of Music, applauded the move.

"I would like to see a return with regularity of not only international orchestras but the great orchestras of our country," said Russell, who decried the loss of visiting orchestras after ASU Gammage ended its "Great Orchestras of the World" concerts in 1995.

But Russell, like Vogel, understands the increasing difficulty in luring international orchestras and artists to American stages.

"It's expensive," he said. "For any given orchestra, one night could be $150,000."

Potter said Gammage ended its "Great Orchestras of the World" concerts because it was losing money.

Vogel was not dissuaded.

"The Valley needs an opportunity to hear an international orchestra of such high caliber," he said.

National Philharmonic of Russia

When: 8 p.m. Thursday.

Where: Mesa Arts Center,

Center and Main streets.

Admission: $35-$75.

Details: (480) 644-6500, www.mesaarts

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