Evgeny Svetlanov (1928 – 2002)

January 19, 2010 at 2:12 am (Music, Russophilia)

This is a tribute to one of Russia’s greatest conductors.

Here is Evgeny Svetlanov conducting the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony. Because it features Ukrainian folk tunes, this work bears the sobriquet “Little Russian.”  (This is – was? – the Russian nickname for the Ukraine.)  The State Symphony Orchestra of Russia, formerly the USSR State Symphony Orchestra, is closely associated with Svetlanov.  He was its conductor from 1965 to 2000, a remarkably long and fruitful tenure.

What a joy it is to see the assurance with which Maestro Svetlanov leads this superb ensemble!

Permalink Leave a Comment


December 15, 2009 at 9:35 pm (Ballet, Music, Performing arts, Russophilia)

Here is a 42-second video clip that threw me back in my chair, gasping in amazement:

This is the great Alexander Godunov as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet (Bolshoi, 1979). First, there is the arrogance, the smug heedlessness, of pure evil; then, the death agony. Watching this – over and over again – I am not only astonished but also downright frightened. Such is the intensity of this performance.

As an artist, Alexander Godunov embodies the idea of the flame that burns too brightly and must, inevitably, consume itself. We can only be grateful for the brilliant legacy he has left to the world of dance. (Additional videos featuring Godunov can be found on YouTube.)

Here is another clip of a performance of Romeo and Juliet by the Bolshoi.

Alexandr Tetrov is  wonderful as Tybalt, but Vladimir Derevianko pretty much steals the show as Mercutio. I can’t take my eyes off his legs – he becomes effortlessly airborne, then whirls like a top. Later, he turns around and taunts Tybalt – one is filled with dread, knowing what will happen next. I confess, I have never watched this video through to the end. I can’t bear the thought of losing Mercutio, the mercurial sprite so cunning and so free.


Sergei Prokofiev is a composer that Ron and I both love. He wrote much great music; for us, Romeo and Juliet is his masterpiece.

Sergei Sergeevich Prokofiev: 1891 - 1953

Russians really connect with the heightened passion that informs Shakespeare’s play. They have taken this timeless, turbulent tale of  love in adversity and through the magic of music and dance, made it their own.

[Valery Gergiev conducts the London Symphony in November 2008.]

Permalink 1 Comment

What do an eighteenth century Russian opera singer and a warlike tribal people of ancient Italy have in common?

May 6, 2009 at 10:40 am (books, History, Italy, Russophilia)

In  The Pearl, author Douglas Smith tells the story of Nicholas Scheremetev, a Russian aristocrat who finds, in the young Praskovia Kovalyova,  a woman of prodigious acting and singing talent. He puts her in starring roles in his home grown opera company. Then, almost inevitably, he falls in love with her. The problem: she is of lowly serf parentage. But this fact does nothing do dampen Scheremetev’s ardor; if anything, his devotion to Praskovia increases as she moves from triumph to artistic triumph.

I found myself turning back repeatedly to this portrait of Praskovia, attributed to German artist Johann Bardou and most likely painted in 1790. She is here depicted in the role of Eliane in an opera entitled “The Marriage of the Samnites” by Andre Gretry:


I admit that at the time, I was so engrossed in the poignant story of Nicholas and Praskovia that I did not stop long to wonder just who the Samnites were. But now that I’ve been reading up on the history of the Italian peninsula, I am encountering them again. Early settlers in central Italy, the Samnites warred repeatedly with the Romans for supremacy in the region. Ultimately they lost out, were dispersed, and gradually disappeared, as the Romans swept all before them.

Somehow, though, I doubt that their womenfolk got themselves up in elaborate costumes like Praskovia’s; animal skins were probably more the order of the day!

Permalink Leave a Comment

Arts and artists of Russia

April 6, 2009 at 8:37 pm (Dance, Music, Russophilia)

Here is a link to a performance of the ballet “Lieutenant Kije” featuring the great Vladimir Vasiliev, with music by Prokofiev.  Sergei Prokofiev is a composer whose music Ron and I deeply love. His Romeo and Juliet is, for us at least, unsurpassed in the classical ballet repertoire.  Click here to see Vasiliev as Romeo and Ekaterina Maximova as Juliet.


Evgenai Obraztsova as Juliet and Andrian Fadeyev as Romeo

Evgenia Obraztsova as Juliet and Andrian Fadeyev as Romeo

We saw these two several years ago in the Kirov production of Romeo and Juliet at the Kennedy Center. It was – well, there are no adjectives sufficient to describe it. One, possibly: transcendent.

Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev  1891-1953

Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev 1891-1953


Here, the Russian Red Army Dance Ensemble (a component of the Alexandrov Ensemble) proves that Russian soldiers just wanna have fun! (Who knew??) Be sure to watch this video all the way through – you’ll see some astounding feats of athleticism:

Permalink 2 Comments

Russian Painting, again

November 14, 2008 at 2:11 pm (Art, Russophilia)

In this past Sunday’s Washington Post (11/09/08), there appeared a review of an exhibit at the Hillwood Estate entitled “Fragile Persuasion: Russian Porcelain and the Fine Art of Propaganda.” In the first paragraph, author Paul Richard states:

“It’s odd about the Russians. They’re mighty at the Stradivarius, and at the chessboard, and the writing desk, but at art you’re meant to look at, they’ve never been that great….Painting’s not their thing. They’re better at Knickknacks.

Well, this fairly took my breath away!

artjohnson In his magisterial tome Art: A New History (2003), Paul Johnson includes a chapter entitled “The Belated Arrival and Sombre Glories of Russian Art.” It begins thus:

“There are important parallels between the two great emerging powers of the nineteenth century, the United States and Russia–their infinite vastness, consciousness of immanent strength, and nervousness in confronting omni-triumphant European culture. Both produced great art during this period, but whereas American achievements are at last beginning to be understood, in all their magnitude, the process of exploring Russian painting has scarcely started.

Johnson goes on to do some exploring of his own, highlighting masters such as Vasily Surikov, Isaak Levitan, and Ilya Repin, whose portraits of Tolstoy seem to capture the essence of that great chronicler of the soul of the Russian people.


There is already a post on Russian art elsewhere on this blog.

Meanwhile, here are some timely reminders of the glory of Russian painting:

Portrait of a Peasant Woman in a Russian Costume, 1784

Portrait of a Peasant Woman in a Russian Costume, 1784, by Ivan Argunov

Cathedral Square, by Dmitri Alexeev

Cathedral Square, by Dmitri Alexeev

Evening the Golden Plyos, by Isaak Levitan

Evening the Golden Plyos, by Isaak Levitan

It's All in the Past, by Vasilii Maximov

It's All in the Past, by Vasilii Maximov

The Hermit, by Nesterov

The Hermit, by Mikhail Nesterov

Menshilov, by Vasilii Surikov

Menshilov, by Vasilii Surikov

Modest Mussorgsky, by Ilya Repin

Modest Mussorgsky, by Ilya Repin

Dostoevsky, by Ilya Repin

Dostoevsky, by Vasily Perov

Wild, by Ivan Shishkin

in the Wild North, by Ivan Shishkin

There’s much more where these came from; see The Russian Art Gallery . And while you’re there, have a look at the section on Old Russian Icons

Miracle of Florus and Laurus -  XV century

Miracle of Florus and Laurus - XV century

and Contemporary Russian Art.

Evident Advantages of the Point of Panoramic Viewing, by Valentin Gubarev

Evident Advantages of the Point of Panoramic Viewing, by Valentin Gubarev

Knickknacks indeed!!


I just found the site of an arts institution new to me: The Museum of Contemporary Russian Art. Now click here to find out where it is; this information will likely bring a smile to your face – it did to mine!

Finally, here is one of the chief treasures of my art book collection:


This book was produced by the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service, in association with the University of Washington Press. The featured art is from the collections of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the State Russian Museum in what is now St. Petersburgh. (I say “what is now” because the book was published in 1986, and the location of the State Russian Museum is given on the title page as Leningrad. The museum itself has had several names – viz this Wikipedia entry. I am reminded of Neal Ascherson’s comment in the Preface to his book Stone Voices to the effect that in Russia, “..the past is said to be unpredictable.”)

The luminous cover portrait is of Vera Repina, painted by her father Ilya Repin.

Permalink 2 Comments

From Serf to Diva to Countess: the stranger-than-fiction life journey of Praskovia Ivanovna Sheremeteva and her lover

August 26, 2008 at 2:17 pm (Book review, books, Russophilia)

The Pearl by Douglas Smith is a most unlikely love story set against the backdrop of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Russia. The rule of the Romanov tsars was absolute. The higher echelon of the nobility often possessed fabulous wealth and ruled over demesnes on which thousands of serfs labored.

Wikipedia defines serfdom as “…enforced labor of serfs on the fields of landowners, in return for protection and the right to work on their leased fields.” As an institution, it resembles to some degree the relationship of lord of the manor and peasant in medieval Europe – feudalism, in other words. In western Europe, this social order was weakened first, by the scourge of the Black Death in the mid-1300’s, and in subsequent years, by the Renaissance. Russia, however, was bypassed by both of these culturally seismic shifts. As a result, the waning years of the eighteenth century found it lumbering forward with glacial slowness, encumbered with an outmoded system of fiefdom more suited to life in the Middle Ages than to the thrust toward modernity being experienced by nations to the West.

in the late 1700’s, for a variety of complex reasons, certain Russian aristocrats built theaters on their vast estates. They then proceeded to tap into the vast pool of available serf labor in search of individuals who could perform in theatrical productions and operas. An amazing reservoir of talent, even genius, was brought to light in this manner. And in just this way a fabulously wealthy epicure, Count Nicholas Scheremetev, discovered the preternaturally gifted Praskovia Kovalyova – discovered her, and then fell in love with her.

Praskovia as Eliane in the opera "The Marriage of the Samnites"

Ii was by no means unheard of for a nobleman to take a serf woman as a lover or a mistress. What was completely unprecedented was for that same nobleman to take such a woman as his wife. This is precisely what Nicolas Schermetev was determined to do.

The Pearl centers on the extraordinary bond between Micholas and Praskovia. The reader can have no doubt concerning the depth of the Count’s devotion to the beautiful, delicate Praskovia. Douglas Smith sets this relationship in context by describing in detail the Russia of the late 18th century. We’re familiar with L.P. Hartley’s dictum concerning the past – that it is another country, where people do things differently. The Russia evoked in these pages seems more like another planet. It was a society governed by rigid protocol. The contrast between the fabulous – I almost want to say obscene- wealth of the aristocracy and the poverty and wretched living conditions of the serfs is shocking. These conditions were promulgated as being nothing less than God’s will. At the head of this ossified social order was the Tsar, a kind of Godhead himself (or herself, the ruler for much of that era being Catherine the Great).. By the next century, the seeds of revolution were already being sown. The only wonder is that it took so long to happen.

This book dragged in places. Smith goes into great detail concerning the strange phenomenon of serf theater. The lengthy narrative of Nicholas’s efforts to establish some sort of noble lineage for Praskovia became tedious. Finally, while a few passages might be described as lyrical, Smith’s prose rarely rises above what I would call workmanlike. In fairness to this author, this was a complex tale exhaustively researched and no doubt extremely difficult to assemble into a coherent whole.

In point of fact, Smith was able to locate the Count’s descendants, who were only to happy to assist him: “Kyra Cheremeteff, a direct descendant of Nicholas and Praskovia, responded with generosity to my inquiries.”

Despite its occasionally slow pace, The Pearl is a book with a compelling story to tell. I recommend it.

Permalink 2 Comments

Gotham Diary: the otherworldly beauty of the Kirov Ballet

April 23, 2008 at 12:09 pm (New York City, Performing arts, Poetry, Russophilia)

Thursday night April 10, I took my friend Helene, a balletomane like myself, to New York City Center to see the Kirov work its magic. The program consisted of scenes from four different ballets: Le Corsaire, Diana and Acteon, Don Quixote, and La Bayadere.

How was it? Superlatives fail me. I don’t have the words, but the poets do. I keeping thinking of two passages in particular:: Romeo’s astonished declaration that “I ne’er saw true beauty till this night;” and the final lines of one of my favorite poems, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn:” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — That is all / Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.” Here’s the entire poem:

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter, therefore, ye soft pipes, play on,
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never, canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal — yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping song for ever new,
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea-shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul, to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape! fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’


As a meditation on the age-old desire to stop cruel time in its tracks, this work, for me, has no equal. I wished very powerfully that the performance we saw that night could be frozen in time, like “the marble men and maidens overwrought” on Keats’s vase. But I will cherish the memory. And there are pictures…

The corps de ballet in the exquisite La Bayadere.

Soloists in La Bayadere

Leonid Sarafanov, whose spectacular leaps and light-as-a-feather landings repeatedly thrilled the audience.* (Here’s a “head shot” of the astounding Sarafanov taken last year. Doesn’t he look as though he’s all of fourteen years old?!)

This photo of Diana Vishneva, taken by Andrea Mohin, appeared in the New York Times on Sunday April 13:


The music, by turns robust and delicate, was played beautifully by the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre; most of the choreography was done by the great Marius Petipa. Helene and I gazed at the program in awe – such storied names…

Here is the Mariinsky Theatre’s official site. It is very oriented to the here and now – not much in the way of history, except for the acknowledgement, in tiny print, that this is there 225th season. For some interesting background, and great photos of the theater itself, see the Wikipedia entry.


For a fascinating cultural hisory of Russia, see Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figes. (I won’t claim to have read through this massive tome; I’ve been using it primarily as a reference work since I purchased it several years ago.)

*For more terrific portraits of ballet dancers, see Gene Schiavone’s site.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony

July 28, 2007 at 11:25 am (books, Music, Russophilia)

tchaikovsky_51.jpg Yesterday on the way to work, I listened to the Symphony Number Four by Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky. In this symphony, threads of melody are interwoven throughout; they appear, disappear, reappear. On occasion, a sprightly piccolo tune brings a smile, however brief, to the lips of the listener. Finally, I was held captive by the fiery conclusion, where Tchaikovsky marshalls the full might of the symphony orchestra (in this case, the Utah Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Maurice Abravanel.). It was hard to move and hard to believe that anything on earth really mattered except for the raw power of this magnificent music.

This is a piece that grabs you by the throat from the first and never lets go. In his biography Tchaikovsky: The Man and His Music, David Brown observes that “None of the first movements of his preceding symphonies had given warning of the scope, scale, sheer intensity, even violence of the first movement of the Fourth Symphony.” Tchaikovsky produced not only this masterpeice but also his great opera Eugenie Onegin during a time of deep personal crisis: in 1877, he had made the disastrous mistake of marrying Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova. (After several months of almost unbearable turmoil, they separated permanently.)

Tchaikovsky, a prolific, almost compulsive letter writer, confided his thoughts and feelings about this symphony to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck. Of the last movement, this man, whose genius was just only now becoming apparent, who was most probably tormented by depression and doomed, because of confused and only dimly understood desires, to spend his life “looking into happiness through another man’s eyes,” wrote:

“Rejoice in others’ rejoicing. To live is still possible!”


[Tchaikovsky’s tomb at the Tikhvin Cemetery in St. Petersburg .]

Permalink 1 Comment

Russian painting

May 24, 2007 at 1:22 am (Art, books, Russophilia)

peternicolai.jpgIn his jumbo candy box of an art history (752 pages!), Paul Johnson assigns a brief chapter to the art of Russia. This chapter is entitled, “The Belated Arrival and Sombre Glories of Russian Art.” Johnson opens by observing that this art has not penetrated Western culture to anywhere near the extent that Russian writing and music have done. He then provides a whirlwind tour, highlighting greats such as Vasily Surikov, Isaak Levitan, Ivan Shishkin, and Ilya Repin. Of these, I would guess that Repin is the best – possible the only – known name among Western art lovers, due chiefly to his stunning portraits of Tolstoy. The few paintings that are reproduced in this book convinced me that I wanted to see and know more of this art. I managed to acquire a book entitled: Russia: The Land, the People: Russian Painting, 1850-1910. (Published in 1986, this book has several contributors; apparently the “official” author is the “Ministry of Culture Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” Remember them?)

The works I particular love are the portraits and the landscapes. Isaak Levitan is especially famous for the latter and is considered by some some to be Russia’s greatest artist. Born in Lithuania, Levitan was Jewish and suffered the inevitable depradations visited upon those of his faith, at that time and in that country. Johnson states bluntly: “Levitan had no reason to love Russia or the Russians , but he did.”

One interesting aspect of Russian portraiture that I’ve noticed is that the artists seem more inclined than their Western counterparts to depict naked emotion on the faces of their subjects.

[Art: A New History by Paul Johnson was published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 2003.]

The best site I have found for viewing Russian painting is www.russianartgallery.org

Some examples of Russian painting:

Top: Peter the Great Interrogating the Tsarevich Alexey, by Nicholas Ge


Russian life and history

repin_unexpected.jpg volga-boatmen.jpg repin-ivan.jpg surikov_streltsi.jpg cossacks1.jpg repintolstoy.jpg

Above, left to right:

They Did Not Expect Him, by Ilya Repin

Barge-Haulers on the Volga, by Repin

Tsar Ivan IV with the Body of His Son Ivan on November 16, 1581, by Repin

The Morning of the execution of the Streltsi, by Vasily Surikov

Zaprozhian Cossacks of the Ukraine Writing a Letter to the Turkish Sultan, by Repin

Photograph of Tolstoy and Repin



golden_autumn.jpg birches2.jpg ferns-levitan.jpg shishkin-winter.jpg

Above, left to right:

Golden Autumn, by Isaak Levitan

The Birch Grove, by Levitan

Footpath in the Forest, Ferns, by Levitan

Winter, by Ivan Shishkin



419px-ilya_efimovich_repin_1844-1930_-_portrait_of_leo_tolstoy_1887.jpg kiprensky_pushkin.jpg flavitsky_tarakanova.jpg repin-mussorgsky.jpg

Above, left to right:

Leo Tolstoy, by Ilya Repin

Portrait of Alexander Pushkin, by Orest Kiprensky

Princess Tarakanova, by Konstantin Flavitsky

Modest Mussorgsky, by Repin

Permalink 1 Comment


May 8, 2007 at 8:12 pm (Book review, books, Music, Russophilia)


I have just finished reading Tchaikovsky: The Man and His Music, by British musicologist David Brown. It is hard for me to decide where to start discussing this book. I was thinking of titling this post, “The Book That Took Over My Life.” That might give you some idea of the affect it had on me.

Brown paints a portrait of a humane and decent man who also happened to be a genius. He was generous to a fault toward family members, friends, and sometimes even strangers, if he judged them worthy. He lived a life surrounded by relations, friends, and admirers and only found himself alone when he chose to be so.

As I read this book, I listened to the pieces Brown referred to; this provided a chronology of Tchaikovsky’s musical life. And what a life! The composer had the great good fortune to be appreciated, loved, and revered during his own lifetime, a boon which is not always granted to an artist. As for the other aspects of his life, Brown’s book reads like a Russian novel. Repressed (mostly, but not always) homosexual desires (Tchaikovsky himself; also his brother Modest), morphine addiction (Sasha, Tchaikovsky’s beloved sister), out-of-wedlock births (Sasha’s daughter Tanya), threats of suicide, actual suicide, inexplicable death – all make their appearance in this larger-than-life biography. Add to this Tchaikovsky’s mysterious and wealthy patroness Nadeshda von Meck – they exchanged innumerable letters but never actually met – and you have a true tale that outstrips fiction in many respects.

When I finished Tchaikovsky: The Man and His Music, I was moved to tears and felt that, with the composer’s death, something of incalculable value had passed from the world. And – I try to be neutral when it comes to people’s preferences – but I can’t imagine a life worth living without this glorious music in it!

[The above portrait of Tchaikovsky is by Nikolai Dmitrievich Kuznetsov. It is the only such portrait painted from life and currently hangs in the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.]

Permalink 2 Comments

« Previous page