Bashmet: From Russia With a Pipa

By Stephen Brookes
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 26, 2007

It would seem to make sense -- geographically, at least -- that Russian musicians are well placed to bridge the gap between East and West. Viola superstar Yuri Bashmet and his chamber orchestra, the Moscow Soloists, put that premise to the test Wednesday, when they brought a program of new, culture-blending Asian music to the Library of Congress. The results, while fascinating and often even brilliant, were mixed.

The evening opened with Toru Takemitsu's "Nostalghia." Takemitsu is a master of emotionally complex atmospherics, and "Nostalghia" is steeped in quiet anguish, with spare and regretful gestures from the violin sketched out against dark, slow-moving clouds of sound in the orchestra. Beautifully written -- but heavy and a bit suffocating. While Bashmet delivered an eloquent and probing performance, there was a collective sigh of relief when, at the end, we could all surface for air.

The Concerto for Pipa and String Orchestra, by the Chinese composer Tan Dun, couldn't have been more different. The pipa is a traditional four-string lute, and you expect a delicate, flowery opening. But the piece is literally kick-started with a collective stamp of the feet, and surges into a pulsing, elemental movement thick with Chinese melodies -- as wild and extroverted as the Takemitsu was introverted. The players strum, pluck and pummel their instruments, letting loose loud cries of "yao!" from time to time -- and lutenist Wu Man more than held her own, unleashing her pipa in an explosion of virtuosity and kinetic power.

But while it's a hugely entertaining ride, the concerto careens shamelessly among kitschy folk melodies, snatches of recycled Bach and hokey tunes redolent of Chinese opera. It even flirts a bit with Bartok. Tan Dun clearly has a sense of humor -- at one point the orchestra members stand up and pretend-tune to the pipa, to mark the transition to a Western style. But it's hard to avoid the feeling that he's hurling a little too much postmodern irony at you.

The evening headed back into deeper waters with Hikaru Hayashi's viola concerto "Elegia" -- a remarkable piece, with a fine romantic and narrative sweep that's well worth the attention it demands. But Bashmet never quite recovered from an insecure start, and rarely seemed fully sure where he was taking the piece. Three short and rather ordinary film scores by Takemitsu closed out the program.

But in an intriguing coda to the evening, the ensemble dropped the East-West fusion theme and went directly to their roots, playing two encores by Russian composers Igor Stravinsky and Alfred Schnittke. The transformation was immediate and astonishing -- as if the players had all suddenly snapped into focus, and were playing directly and deeply from the blood.

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