MUSIC / Orchestrating a Russian revival: Pianist-turned- conductor Mikhail Pletnev runs the only private orchestra in post- Soviet Russia. Robert Cowan went to Moscow to see how he makes music make money

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The Independent Culture
Edged by tall pines and sparsely littered Aeroflot jets, Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport offers no ordinary welcome. Trudging down the corridor to a dimly lit Customs area, visitors confront weary crowds of expectant friends, relations or officials, their faces pressed against a high glass barrier. Young soldiers in long coats loiter; most have pale complexions, high cheekbones and sullen expressions that serve as camouflage. When you finally hit the busy forecourt, the dusty rattle of Lada engines recalls sounds that we in the West remember from 30 or 40 years ago.

At first glance, Russia looks heavy, old and tired, her roads scarred with pot-holes, her buildings caked with dirt and flaking paint. Towering flats and rusty bus shelters spasmodically border the road to Moscow and if you're lucky enough to catch a 'straight' cabby - ours was reliable, usefully talkative and carried a pistol - then you might learn how inflation, food shortages, Mafia corruption and wholesale violence are turning what was once a healthy tourist attraction into the worst kind of urban jungle.

But if you look a little closer, you might absorb some of the remaining grandeur: the garishly coloured but strangely austere St Basil's Cathedral, or the Kremlin (where fresh-cut flowers had been placed at the foot of Stalin's memorial), or the echoing, cobbled expanse of Red Square. You might also listen to the young, to their hopes, aspirations and determination - to the pianist-conductor and Tchaikovsky Competition gold-medallist Mikhail Pletnev, for example, whose brainchild, the Russian National Orchestra (the first entirely independent orchestra to exist in Russia since 1917), was the first project to earn support from the American-based, tax-exempt Russian Arts Foundation.

British experience of RNO-style virtuosity began with a much-acclaimed 1991 Virgin Classics recording of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique symphony, but since then sponsorship has increased and an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon contract (signed last November) affords further potential and protection. 'Before Gorbachev, no one here would have understood what the word 'sponsorship' meant,' admitted a pale, shy and largely inscrutable Pletnev. 'But now, even small children know that to say 'Be my sponsor' means 'Give me money']'

The RNO has no state support, and home concerts earn the orchestra precious little. 'We play them virtually for free,' Pletnev says. 'In fact, if we were to divide the profits between the orchestra members - even without me - then they'd probably be able to buy a packet of cigarettes each.' And yet the orchestra's Moscow concerts are almost always sold out.

I heard them ignite Dvorak's first set of Slavonic Dances at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, with its snow-white interior, doll's-house balconies, high-backed wooden chairs and symmetrical banisters. Pletnev claims that his Moscow audiences consist 'not only of musicians, but of mathematicians, engineers, physicians - in fact, all sorts of people who have an interest in classical music. But ordinary workers, they don't go to concerts' - he winces, then lights up another cigarette - 'they just listen to this bloody pop music.'

Another sore point is the widening chasm between wealth and poverty and its effect on Russian musical life. 'You cannot imagine how many people in Russia are extremely rich,' he says. 'If there are dollars 13 billion invested in the Russian economy, then there is about the same amount in foreign banks owned by Russian clients. And sometimes the nouveau riche adopt classical music as a prestigious interest. The last time Rostropovich conducted my orchestra in the Bolshoi Theatre, the 'new' audience included many people who know nothing about music. The tickets cost dollars 30 or dollars 40, so ordinary concert-goers couldn't afford them: the place was full of diamonds and expensive clothes. The programme included Tchaikovsky's Pathetique symphony, and a couple of ladies behind me seemed very happy to encounter a 'good' tune. 'But he's written another lovely piece,' I heard one of them say, 'the First Piano Concerto']'

Pletnev fondly remembers the ardour and enthusiasm of fellow students, their keenness to attend concerts - even to the extent of scaling the Bolshoi's enormous walls to peer through the roof or the windows. So why, when taking all into account, does he insist on staying in Russia? His answer is decisive. 'For four reasons,' he says. 'Firstly, of course, there's my orchestra. Secondly, although Russia is at present a horrible country, I am never bored here. Thirdly, our Moscow concerts have a very special atmosphere - the audiences absorb everything, they don't miss a note. And fourthly, it's home - and if I were to move to the West, I'm not sure that wouldn't bring other sorts of problems. You know, there are some people for whom 'trouble' is an essential part of their existence - where having no problems would be the worst problem of all.'

But there are limits, surely - such as the bellowing spectre of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the so-called Russian Liberal Democratic Party. How does Pletnev, a successful Russian, view him? 'Zhirinovsky promises everything to everyone - workers, women, sexual minorities, even alcoholics. You want vodka?' he'd say. 'And what does it cost you now - three, six thousand roubles?' Zhirinovsky would promise an immediate reduction to, say, three roubles 62 kopeks] But he's not as dangerous for Russia's development as the parties close to Communism. Yet even the so-called 'Democratic Wing' is full of contradictions. The whole picture is chaotic: it's like an army of ants swarming towards a hill - some carrying things forwards, others carrying them back.'

And when I asked if the Russian recording industry wasn't in turmoil, Pletnev gave a wry smile. 'If it were only that]' he said. 'Everything connected with art is neglected, because nobody is interested in it. Interest in the arts comes only after a certain stability. Boris Yeltsin met the so-called intelligentsia several times, and some of his decrees show that he understands. Also, his friendship with Rostropovich is very helpful for Russian artists. But the main problem is lack of money, the closing of huge factories, debts that run into billions of roubles, and mass unemployment. So what can be left for art, music or poetry?'

Pletnev, though, remains healthily pragmatic with regard to his sponsorships. 'OK, the State neglects me, but we neglect them. We do our job and don't go cap-in- hand, crying: 'Please, Mr Yeltsin, help us with this or that.' No, we understand it would be useless.'

And what of other Russian orchestras, Yevgeny Svetlanov's State Symphony Orchestra of the Russian Federation, for example? Pletnev shrugs: 'I don't know. It's probably subsidised, but I presume that the sort of money they earn amounts almost to nothing. That's why orchestras go abroad, many of them for peanuts - it's the foreign currency. They can earn as much in one day abroad as they would at home in a month.'

As to repertoire, Pletnev's recording schedule includes music by Dvorak, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. But when I asked him about certain rarer repertory, he confessed to yet another problem. 'We cannot get the music,' he said glumly, 'because the huge Library of the Musical Foundation in Russia had to put its musical materials in a cellar somewhere, and there's no way of finding anything.' So when Pletnev and his forces gave a series of Russian premieres, they called on Deutsche Grammophon for some of the music. And the repertoire in question? Mozart's Masonic cantatas. Yes, things are certainly changing in Russia]

Russian National Orchestra on tour: 8pm tonight, Brighton Dome (0273 713831); 8pm Sat, Birmingham Symphony Hall (021-212 3333); 7.30 Sun, London RFH (071-928 8800)

(Photograph omitted)