Thursday, April 26, 2007

Music and History

One of these days the Filharmonija needs to start paying me to attend their concerts! Took me some time to decide to go to today's concert of the Tartar Music Orchestra of the Kazan Conservatory. I feared I might not like it, but it would be interesting to see what they do and what the music is like. The concert was in aid of the Tartar's 610 year presence in the Lithuanian Grand Duchy (they are linked to Trakai whence they were imported to by ...Gediminas? from Crimea though the story goes that originally they are from the Iraq area). Due to their dark good looks, and the German's lack of knowledge of the finer details they also suffered much during the second World War. From somewhere I already knew that it would be a long programme (24 items!).

But that was nothing compared to the sinking feeling I had when I saw the band coming on stage with those instruments, which the Russians call 'national instruments'. These are anything that is plucked or strummed, mandolin-style, including some balalaikas (triangular), domras (egg-shaped), and a number of other such instruments. This website describes the domra, and this goes for them all, as 'When you play the domra, you play with a plectrum and mostly, you use a tremolo method giving a monotonous endless tone'. And they are trying to get people to play these instruments? There were 11 of these, about 2 accordeons/bayans, a double bass, a flute and variety of kurais (Bashkir national instruments like recorders), clarinet, two violins and percussion. Apart from a singer with the helpful name of Gubaidulina (Lilia of that ilk).

The link to history comes in where all these plucked instruments are clearly Russian, and I wondered what Tartar music was played on before the Russians waded in, and perhaps adapted the music to Russian instruments? Much like Khachaturian is accused of Europeanising/Sovietising Armenian folk music.

Some of the music was Tartar, but the band had no hesitation to also play Rossini and Piazzola on their national instruments (as I have heard Telemann and Vivaldi concertos on similar instruments in Russia). The Tartar music is interesting - I can hear bits of Caucasus music (that hard drum), and of Chinese harmonies, as you might hear in Turandot (I think) and other pieces that purport to reflect Chinese influences. The players' faces reflected all that is good and great about Russia, and its ethnic mix. Strange how the Russian hoodlums forget their own country's history when they beat up all the Chinese after Japan beats them at football.

How well someone plays an instrument with a plectrum is not something I can comment on. The violinists were a bit rough, particularly in terms of lacking vibrato when it was needed, strangely, for Russian training - there were moments when the notes were really not nice at all. The flute had moments of breathlessness; the accordeon/bayan players did some very virtuosic stuff and tried to engage the public (attendance, and participation, was limited) with only very moderate success. It was not entirely necessary in a programme of 24 items for one of them to give an encore! One young woman played a well-known piece 'Caravan' by one V Novikov on the bass clarinet, almost the size of herself, but was often drowned out by the band behind her - you could only see her fingers moving. The singer would be nice for operetta; she hammed it up greatly; her voice was rather over-bright but for a provincial opera company, in little operettas she might be fine. Dramatic roles? I don't know.

Despite the long programme, and speeches, the concert was over after 2 hours and 10 minutes. It's one I can tick off as having heard.