Viola virtuoso Yuri Bashmet founded the Moscow Soloists Chamber Orchestra two decades ago, which quickly established itself through Grammy-winning recordings and worldwide tours. On Friday evening, Bashmet and company presented a strange and, at times, irritating concert at the Music Center at Strathmore.
First, the programming. The MSCO is a string orchestra, for which there is a wealth of original literature ranging from Antonio Vivaldi to Arvo Part. None of the six works offered came from this broad category; everything performed was an arrangement, adulteration or corruption of the original. Why wouldn’t a world-class group want to showcase its unique repertoire?
Then there’s the question of whether the MSCO has a conductor. Bashmet’s directing style could be called collaborative or superficial. His gestures tend to be horizontal and airy and lack detail. The players watch one another more than Bashmet, but many entrances were still sloppy. When Bashmet took up his viola to perform as soloist in the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, he dropped any pretense of leadership, standing motionless even during long rests, leaving the group to hang together as best it could.
The MSCO also brought cellist Mischa Maisky along as soloist, although it didn’t have the necessary wind players for the Tchaikovsky Nocturne or the Haydn Cello Concerto in C Major. The solution? Simply do without. This appallingly cavalier attitude from a professional ensemble — just play and hope no one notices — was of a piece with its interpretations. To trim a long first half, Bashmet left off most repeats in the Schubert Death and the Maiden Quartet (a partial Mahler arrangement, which the composer sensibly abandoned halfway through as unworkable). The famously slow movement began faster than I’d ever heard it, then immediately slowed for the first variation. At the end, it slowed even further, the coda ending in a crawl. Did the musicians not understand it was the same material, now unrecognizable?
The tragedy of all this was that much of the playing was impressive. Maisky is truly a master, with an industrial-strength sound, although he doesn’t draw the long lines of his illustrious teacher Mstislav Rostropovich. Bashmet is justifiably hailed as one of the world’s finest violists; what a pity we had to hear him in such an ill-advised misfire. While Brahms sanctioned the substitution of the viola in his clarinet quintet, he never intended this tightly woven piece to metastasize into a viola concerto. Undaunted, Bashmet stood in front as a soloist, with multiple players for each of the other parts seated around him (including a gratuitous double-bass, which would have appalled Brahms). But only occasionally did Bashmet’s part deserve such a spotlight; the clarinet line lurks, accompanies and rests as much as it leads. Just a bizarre spectacle.
I wouldn’t call the MSCO players “soloists,” but all are expert and conscientious. They had worked out detailed tone colors in various spots, and given the indeterminacy at the helm, were often remarkably well-blended. But in moments during the Haydn concerto, the soloist, concertmaster and conductor all seemed to be trying to lead at the same time. With clearer lines of authority, more disciplined direction and repertoire written for string orchestra, this group would more than live up to its reputation. But on Friday, the performance was a head-scratcher all around.
Battey is a freelance writer.