Classical Music: The romantic revolutionary

Conductor Mikhail Pletnev has staged a coup - creating Russia's first capitalist orchestra since 1917. Michael Church joined him on the band's tour down the Volga
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The Independent Culture
We're in an orphanage for sick infants, with a sea of baby-blue beds in one dormitory, a sea of powder-pink ones in another, and a forest of fake foliage in the hall between, which is ablaze with Perspex chandeliers. A chorus-line in yellow rompers do a Shirley Temple number; two tiny sailors impersonate Kelly and Astaire. There are infant speeches of welcome, poems declaimed in high-pitched tones. The adult guests respond with baskets of chocolate - tokens of a larger consignment waiting in a van outside. Meet the Russian National Orchestra, sponsored by Mars, taking time off to win the hearts and minds of tomorrow's audiences, while they tour the cities of the Volga.

Today's audience in industrial Samara packs the hall so full that extra chairs are crammed in the aisles. In nearby Togliatti, home of the Lada car, the concert hall turns out to be mothballed because its impoverished management have had their electricity cut; so keen are the audience, however, that cancellation is unthinkable, and an alternative venue is found. In the university town of Kazan - where Tolstoy, Lenin, and Gorky all found their reason for living - the orchestra christen a brand-new hall. Nobody is turned away, and they're hanging from the rafters. Average age? Well under 30.

Each event is prefaced by speeches. "Today a golden autumn begins," declares the mayor of Samara. "Gorbachev said that Togliatti was a town with no soul," says a dignitary of that burg, in a voice throbbing with emotion. "Tonight we have proved that we do have a soul!" The mayor of Kazan expresses his gladness that recent hardships have eased (ignoring loud growls from the balcony about the spiralling cost of living). "This concert proves our culture can thrive, through the union of art and market economics. Originally our music was funded by the Ministry of Culture, and when those funds dried up, by the regional government. When the Chechen war ruined the regional government, the Soros Foundation came to our rescue." After each mayor has said his piece, a local Selina Scott (power shoulders or ball-dress obligatory) announces the programme, mismatching works and composers with a brazen smile. At the end of each piece a procession of boys and girls bury the conductor under vast bouquets, while the applause - a communal rhythmic handclap - goes on and on. No Western reticence here, these audiences express their love - and it really is love - with glorious abandon.

For this is a remarkable orchestra, and what it is doing for Russia is remarkable in itself. Russia's state-funded orchestras spend as much time as possible touring in the West, because that's where they can earn real money. The Russian National Orchestra is the country's first capitalist band since 1917, created as an act of defiance against the suffocating hegemony of the Ministry of Culture. And it balances its international tours - to Tokyo, the London Proms, the Olympics in Atlanta - with tours to Russia's music-starved interior. Under the direction of pianist-conductor Mikhail Pletnev it carries the torch for Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Scriabin to audiences who regard such composers as their birthright. And it seems wholly in character that it should be making this particular tour not by bus or train, but in the time-honoured Volga manner - by boat.

The cabins of the good ship Alexander Radishchev - named after an enlightened 18th-century social commentator - echo all day to the sound of practice on strings and brass, as the message is prepared for delivery each night. The musicians are a clubbable lot, but their conductor is strikingly aloof. Pletnev - accompanied everywhere by his formidable mother, plus an entourage of minders - moves about the boat like an inscrutable deity: his moods are legendary, and his flock study his features before daring to address him. But on two things they are unanimous. That they owe him their success (plus their recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon). And that he is, quite simply, a genius.

His style on the podium is minimalist: he stands almost motionless, commanding intensely emotional responses with tiny flicks of his hand. His conversation is comparably monosyllabic, as would-be interrogators find to their cost. Why do his programmes contain no contemporary works? He replies with a shrug. When does he find time to practise for his parallel career as a pianist? Another shrug: "Playing the piano is like riding a bicycle." When a British interviewer obsequiously presents him with a novel, he accepts it in silence, then fixes the donor with a withering look: "Have you read it?" This is conversation-stopping raised to an art.

Occasionally, however, his one-word answers are as eloquent as those flicks of his hand. When asked what he could offer his prospective employees - leaving secure jobs, and at one stage having to be paid out of Pletnev's own pocket - he simply replies: "Hope". This point is elaborated by his orchestral manager, a genial bassist called Sergei Kornienko. The idea had first germinated in 1972, when he, Pletnev, and the violinist who now leads the orchestra were all studying in Moscow's Central Music school, where they decided to form a youth orchestra. Eighteen years later, they reconvened to launch a musical challenge to the Ministry of Culture. Those who responded to their summons were given a mixture of threats and bribes to attempt to lure them back. "This meant that those who did join us were absolutely committed to the cause."

Since the new orchestra was formed from defectors from four others, there were strains at the start: one lot came believing in meritocratic ranking, others rejected all notions of rank, while another group assumed they were the elite. The band now operates with few rules, beyond the cardinal one that if any players are deemed to be playing badly, they are instantly kicked out, though they get paid until the end of their contract. When two violin posts fell vacant recently, 36 violinists from state orchestras applied. Two years ago the Bolshoi was shaken to the core when its entire trombone section defected to the RNO. Not for nothing is Pletnev known in Moscow as the music-world's Tsar.

Why did a high-flying diplomat called Sergei Markov throw up his career to become the orchestra's executive director? "As Russia's cultural attache in Mexico, I regularly received orchestras from Moscow. And at first I couldn't understand why this particular one arrived with no supporting word from the government. When I heard them play, it was like ... like a starry sky. Cold, yes. But so perfect. This was not the Russian playing I was used to." He had been getting restive in his well-paid backwater, and was sick of seeing local orchestras in Mexico swelled with the ranks of Russian refugees. "That was 1992, and Russia was suddenly on the move. I wanted to be part of the long-awaited change." He resigned and set up a concert agency in Moscow. Then he got Pletnev's summons, and accepted like a shot.

The logistics of tours like the current one are his biggest headache, because in Russia the idea of a contractual relationship between orchestra and venue is still unfamiliar. "The Ministry of Culture simply orders a city to receive an orchestra, and the city obeys." And trying to enforce legal obligations can be dangerous. "Ninety-nine per cent of the murders you read about in Russia are over unpaid debts."

Sponsorship is the other challenge. The orchestra's biggest prop is the eccentric millionaire Gordon Getty, whose own compositions they occasionally play "to make him feel at home". There is discreet disagreement in the ranks about the quality of these works: Pletnev describes them as Romantic, Kornienko says they put him in mind of Joan Baez. Other sponsors - besides Mars - include Mercedes-Benz, three American oil companies and one Russian bank.

What's the problem with domestic sponsorship? "Western institutions understand this kind of philanthropy," says Markov. "But Russian ones don't - we have no tradition of it. Art is seen as the responsibility of the state. But there is a particularly good reason for foreign investors to do so at present. By supporting this sort of event you cut the ground from under the nationalists' feet - you silence those who argue that all foreign investors want is to rip us off. Sponsoring an orchestra can actually safeguard your investments."

Ticket prices are another problem; the RNO have come under fire for charging several times the token fee to which Russian audiences are accustomed. "We have to educate people, make them see that unless they are prepared to pay, they will lose all their artists, and live in a cultural vacuum. So many musicians have left the country that this situation is dangerously close."

Late at night after the Kazan concert, I get a sudden summons to meet the maestro. We are in his home town, which he had not revisited for 25 years: he is in a state of exaltation, I am informed, and wants to address, if not the world, then at least the BBC World Service. And he really is transformed. While his minders lurk in the shadows, he gives a performance every bit as polished as the one he's just given in the concert hall.

He talks of his childhood - "sweet remembrances" - and of his first shot at conducting (an orchestra of teddy bears when he was two). Why did he create this orchestra? "Sometimes I think it was just a happy coincidence. Sometimes I think it was my destiny. Sometimes I think it was political necessity. Sometimes I think it was a result of my own egoistic intentions. The truth is - all of these things. I was once asked why I thought Russia needed yet another orchestra, and I replied that when I became a pianist, I didn't ask if they needed another pianist."

He says he hates listening to his own recordings - "it's like seeing your ugly face in a mirror" - but then adds a rider: "When I am in a creative mood, I think there are no equals to me." Indeed, Western-style false modesty is not his suit, as he reveals in an explanation of his orchestra's meteoric rise. "Some people might say that the only possible reason is that I am the genius. What can I say? Am I a genius? If nobody else could do this, and I have been able to, the answer is there. But you must say this, not me!" He's laughing, but he means it.

He talks at length of the impossibility, for him, of planning his programmes far in advance. "I can't conduct Mozart when I am in the spirit of Scriabin, or vice versa. We Russians are moody: we're romantic, given to hard extremes, beyond all borders." He also talks about hope - for the future of art in Russia ("for the highly educated people who exist in all our cities"), and for the future of civilised society.

Taking stock on the train back to Moscow, Markov reverts to this theme. "People have got so used to the idea that this country is falling apart, that they've stopped trying to prevent it. Unless we do something now, Russia will never become a normal place again. I have come back to live here because I believe that this is possible." After witnessing this cultural to-and-fro in the heartlands - and assuming the ship of state doesn't completely run aground - so do I.

n Mikhail Pletnev's new set of Tchaikovsky Symphonies with the RNO is released this month on DG (449 967-2, 5 discs). The RNO will tour Britain next year, starting in Birmingham, 14 Feb