Mikhail Pletnev, concert pianist and conductor, seems
distracted. He'll shortly join Sophia Loren at a lavish black-tie gala for the Russian
National Orchestra, of which he's music director. There he'll talk about his work in
serious terms. But right now, as he looks dapper and compact after a press luncheon for
the RNO, his eye wanders and he answers questions with wry little one-line jokes.
Is it true, he's asked, that the RNO -- billed as the first
orchestra in Russia with no state funding or control -- is completely independent of the
government? "They let us pay taxes," he replies in English, with a faraway
Pletnev founded the RNO eight years ago, when communism was
tottering but still officially ruled, and when independent organizations of any kind were
still a shocking novelty. Why had he taken such a step? "I am just a conductor,"
he answers. "I like to conduct good orchestra. RNO is good orchestra."
And did Russian musicians really leave jobs with established
ensembles to join this one? "Yes," Pletnev says. "Every artist has wife
saying, 'Where is the money?' But now the musician says, 'My darling, I'm going to join
orchestra with young conductor whose future is not established." He shrugs.
But why did they join him?
"Ask them!" Pletnev says, breaking into a
Pletnev has every reason to be confident.
The RNO -- which plays at the Los Angeles Music Center on Tuesday, in Palm Springs on
Wednesday and in Santa Barbara on Thursday -- was an instant success. It gave its debut
concert in Moscow in November 1990 and on the spot was invited to London to record
Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony for Virgin Classics. That recording,
released in 1991, got reviews that were almost literally unbelievable.
"Should human beings be able to play like this?"
asked Britain's Gramophone magazine.
With those reviews, Pletnev -- whose career as a pianist
began in 1978, when he won the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition at age 21 -- was
decisively launched as a conductor. He had been known to Russian musicians before that,
though, and -- no wonder he grinned -- that was one big reason why they joined his
"I love Pletnev," says Rustem Gabdullin, the RNO's
principal bassist, speaking with a shy smile, and apologizing often for his English.
"All musicians wished to play for him."
The RNO's independence was also an attraction. Soviet
orchestras were operated by the state, and the state guaranteed the musicians' salaries.
But in other ways, the deal wasn't so attractive -- these ensembles never publicized their
concerts, for instance, typically posting just one announcement in a central place, like
the Moscow Conservatory. The RNO seemed lively by comparison, proclaiming itself with
banners and posters all over Moscow.
And it wasn't subject to bureaucratic whims. For 22 years
before he joined the RNO, Gabdullin played in the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble
inseparably linked with its conductor, Rudolf Barshai. Under Soviet rule, Gabdullin sadly
remembers, "all orchestras have contract with official system, must do special
things. We must play in every region, make some concerts in bad halls for 20 people, in
bad district where nobody likes music."
The RNO, by contrast, plays all its concerts -- 20 or so in
Moscow each year, plus a few in St. Petersburg, several on an annual tour down the Volga
River and more on tour internationally -- for people who care.
Gabdullin looks back happily to the last months of the
Soviet Union, in 1990, when the RNO was formed. "It was very nice moment," he
recalls, smiling again. "It was time with new ideas in Russia" -- perfect for
musicians like himself, who might have found work in the West but didn't want to leave
home and transplant their families.
But the RNO had its problems. Early on -- according to one
of the irresistible stories supporters of the orchestra love to tell -- the RNO was so
poor, the musicians had just one pencil and had to pass it around to make corrections in
Some New Yorkers, hearing the RNO on this tour, thought the
brass section sounded tinny. Asked about this, Sergei Markov, the orchestra's executive
director, rubbed his thumb and forefinger together in the international symbol for money.
"We need better instruments," he says, adding that
not only could the brass players use them, but also the woodwinds, basses and most of the
And when it comes to the RNO's administrative difficulties,
Markov is emphatic: "Finances are short. Orchestra management is business, but in
Russia, circumstances in business are bad. People say but don't do."
"Music once was free as air," Markov says
sarcastically, recalling the days when the Soviet government provided everything.
"Now nobody understands that orchestra management is a business. Nobody will
understand till music is gone."
If RNO's business side can't thrive at home,
it's natural that the orchestra would seek support abroad. Enter black-tie galas in New
York, Sophia Loren and a San Francisco lawyer named Rick Walker. Walker, a partner who
practiced entertainment law for Bronson, Bronson & McKinnon, first heard of the RNO
when a New York colleague asked him to donate a few hours to advise the orchestra on its
first recording deal.
A few hours turned into seven years, and now Walker
describes himself as the RNO's general counsel and world manager, as well as the head of
the Russian Arts Foundation, a nonprofit entity organized to raise money for the RNO.
Walker had bonded with Pletnev: "He's someone not affected by any of the trappings of
modern life. He's completely pure, a soul from a different century."
But the orchestra needed money even more than purity. In
typical Russian fashion, it received no income from ticket sales (all of that went to the
halls where the orchestra performed). Walker was able to arrange a quick tour of Sicily,
where the proceeds would accrue to the RNO's bottom line.
In the long run, though, the RNO needed more.
"There was no basis for earned income in Russia or for
contributed support," Walker says. "The heart of this orchestra was in Russia,
but we needed to locate its financial home in the West."
He put together more international tours, got the orchestra
a far more visible record contract with one of the top classical labels, Deutsche
Grammophon, and, most of all, organized international financial support. International
sources, including Russian subsidiaries of multinational corporations, now account for
fully 90% of the RNO's contributed income; this, apart from fees for touring, pays for
nearly all the orchestra's $1.6-million annual budget (a bare-bones figure, which would
have to be higher if guest artists and sometimes even the orchestra's own musicians didn't
sometimes donate their services).
Walker brought Loren on board after meeting her son, Carlo
Ponti Jr., himself a conductor. When some of the RNO's patrons visited Rome, Loren hosted
a dinner for them, and once she met Pletnev, a knot was tied.
"She's the type of artist who can see deep inside
someone," says Walker, in a quiet voice. "And Pletnev is the real thing. "
Though, of course, the corporations that support the RNO --
among them Aetna, Exxon, Chase Manhattan, Coca-Cola, Mars and Mercedes-Benz, some of which
even have representatives on the orchestra's board -- might have different motives. Many
of them, Walker says, do business in Russia and are glad to find a cause that can help
make them visible there.
This "enlightened self-interest," in Walker's
words, extends to his own firm, which pays his salary while he spends full time on the
RNO. "They get contact with potential clients," Walker explains.
Now cut to the black-tie gala benefit, at
New York's lavish, gilded Metropolitan Club. The event honors Gordon P. Getty, a Getty Oil
heir, composer, economist and a key supporter of the RNO (and many other musical groups).
Some 180 people have attended, paying at least $500 for the
privilege. Many of them are Getty's friends, who include some of the richest and most
socially prominent party-goers in New York.
Richard L. Huber, the chairman and chief executive of Aetna,
is asked why his company is the largest corporate supporter of the RNO's American tour. In
reply, Huber urges a reporter to touch his arm. "I want you to feel," he roars,
"that I don't have an altruistic bone inside me." Aetna supports the RNO, he
says, because when he takes clients to their concerts, there are stories to tell. Does he
mean the "poor orphan" tales about just one pencil for the whole orchestra?
"Yes!" he answers, with a huge, happy smile.
Getty speaks feelingly about the RNO's
"Pathetique" CD, which introduced him to the group, and about how touched he was
when Pletnev called on him, to ask if he might have composed any music that the RNO could
Pletnev says a few words, sounding modest and no longer wry.
He's grateful for any support, he says, and he praises Getty's work. (Earlier, making a
face, the conductor had said he doesn't care for contemporary composition. But Getty's
romantic style apparently appeals to him.) He also plays the piano and -- the faraway look
gone as he focuses on music -- doesn't seem distracted at all.
Loren, designated as the gala's international chair, doesn't
say a word in public. [That's her on the right of course, with me and Gordon Getty.] She
hardly needs to; her name and her presence, regal and glowing, have helped attract the
glittering crowd. Privately, however -- after rejecting, with an imperious wave, a request
to be photographed with staff of the Metropolitan Club -- she explains why she's there.
"I have not supported the arts before," she says,
"but when I do it, I am happy. Now I will do more."
She chose the RNO, she says, because Pletnev is a
"prodigy," meaning not an impressive 6-year-old, of course, but a stupendous
force of nature.
Earlier, Pletnev had noted something sad that happens to an
orchestra famous for being Russian: When it tours America, it is allowed only to play
Russian music. That, he says, is what the people who book it demand, though he would
prefer more varied repertory: "I would like to conduct a Bruckner symphony."
But this is just one of the many compromises life requires.
And the goal -- keeping the RNO alive in Russia -- is surely worth it.
[Here I am with Gordon Getty -- and Sophia Loren. Maybe she's
not the most articulate person I've ever met, but certainly she's the most regal. To say
she's impressive would be the understatement of the year -- she completely knocked me out.
She must be in her mid-sixties, and her face shows it, but the signs of age only make her
more real, and therefore more beautiful. If there's any royalty left in the world, she's
I was granted an audience with her -- that's more or less what
it felt like -- when she left the party, which meant I walked down a hallway with her, and
rode two flights down with her in an elevator. As she got near the elevator, a
photographer approached her with a request. Would she pose for a photo with some of the
staff of the Metropolitan Club? She waved a hand in refusal, a gracious but entirely
decisive gesture, which, if it could have been put into words, would have meant, "No,
of course not. I'm very tired of such things, and you will not ask me
The photo of her with me and Gordon Getty catches her at an odd
moment, when she seems a little distracted. I'm thrilled to have it, though. I'm not
normally starstruck; I met Barbra Streisand once without batting an eye, and stood with
unquickened pulse a few feet away from Madonna at a party for her Sex book. But
Sophia Loren wowed me, and I'm thrilled to have the picture, no matter how uninvolved with
me she looks. Carey O'Donnell, the very spirited publicist for the gala, sent it to me;
thanks, Carey! (Now should I post a picture of you?)
And now a little more about the RNO. I wrote this piece as a
reporter, not a critic. That was what the L.A. Times asked me to do -- to
observe, and convey my observations with no personal commentary. Of course, I couldn't
help intruding at least a hint of a point of view, but if I'd written this in my own
voice, I would have been explicit about a few things.
First, the RNO sounded mediocre when they gave their Carnegie
Hall concert, a few days before I wrote this. The brass was not just tinny, but harsh and
out of tune. And while the group is wonderfully musical and clearly loves to play, they
had very little energy. Rick Walker told me they were jet-lagged; maybe that's true. One
thing good I can say about the orchestra, though -- that recording of the Tchaikovsky
"Pathetique" really is stellar. I hadn't heard it when I wrote the
article, but now I can say that it's truly arresting, one of the most gripping orchestral
recordings I've ever heard.
A second point I might have gone into: Gordon Getty's
relationship with the RNO. Getty isn't a horrible composer, but he's not exactly famous,
either. So there was something wildly ingenuous when he told his story -- without any
apparent irony or self-consciousness -- about Mikhail Pletnev asking him about his music.
Why did Pletnev visit him, if not to raise money? In fairness, though, Getty is in a hard
place. When he tries to get his music performed, his money will always be an issue. He can
never be sure that anyone performing it isn't using him; some people may even resist
playing his work,because they don't want their integrity to be questioned. In the end,
what can he do but forge ahead, and try to make the best of his situation, just as the
rest of us make the best of ours? The most cynical view, of course, is that Getty's money
has bought him his career, but even if that's true, it hasn't bought him very much of
Los Angeles Times, April 5, 1998