On Wednesday, February 27, the Russian National Orchestra under the baton of founding artistic director Mikhail Pletnev will invade the Granada for an all-Rachmaninoff program featuring Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor with soloist George Li, and the Symphonic Dances, Op. 45. It’s an ambitious night of music that spans four decades of composition by one of Russia’s greatest musicians, but it is only the beginning of a five-day stretch of musical immersion that presenting organizations CAMA and Opera Santa Barbara have in store for hardy fans of the Russian classical tradition. At the Lobero on Friday, March 1, only two nights later, Opera Santa Barbara will present the first of two performances of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a tour de force demonstrating the composer’s mastery not only of writing for voices but also of his excellence as a purveyor of ballroom dance tunes.
In Onegin, brilliant arias abound, including the spectacular one for Tatiana that narrates the young woman’s night-long process of writing and revising a love letter to the title character. Soprano Karin Wolverton will sing this role in a cast that also features Lee Poulis as Eugene Onegin and Kevin Langan as Tatiana’s eventual husband, the noble and gracious Prince Gremin. For those who have not read Alexander Pushkin’s classic novel in verse in some time, let me refresh your memory. It’s the founding document of a whole line of Russian tales featuring so-called “superfluous men,” a Russian character type derived from the Byronic hero. Onegin, like the many characters he influenced, doesn’t fit into the society in which he finds himself. Wealthy, attractive, and intelligent, he’s also arrogant, insensitive, and cynical in the extreme. No wonder all the ladies love him. Apart from inciting the love of women, and then jilting them, nothing becomes a superfluous man more than a good duel, and Eugene Onegin has one of the best. In it, the anti-hero meets and kills the man who has, until their rupture, been his best friend. All of this, including the spectacular ball scene in which Onegin incites his friend to challenge him by flirting with his fiancée, takes place to the strains of some of Tchaikovsky’s most memorable music.
On Thursday, February 28, the hardiest of contemporary Slavophiles will gather at the Impact Hub on Chapala Street for a 5:30 p.m. screening of Alexander Sokurov’s film Russian Ark, an experimental historical drama that covers Russian history from the time of Catherine the Great to the Last Imperial Ball in 1913. Organized into a single 96-minute sequence featuring thousands of characters and three orchestras, the film was shot on location in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.
The Russian National Orchestra (RNO) was founded in 1990 as a cultural signal of the advent of glasnost and perestroika. Conductor Mikhail Pletnev, who won the prestigious Tchaikovsky competition as a young pianist in 1977, chose to organize his ensemble entirely on the basis of private funding in order to avoid the politicization of musical programming that pervaded the state orchestras of the Soviet period. In the decades that followed, through touring and recording, the RNO has secured its position as the greatest contemporary Russian orchestra. Pianist George Li, who has a silver medal from the 2015 Tchaikovsky competition, has performed with the San Francisco Symphony and the New York and Los Angeles philharmonics.
For Kostis Protopapas, the general and artistic director of Opera Santa Barbara, this “Russian Week” is an example of the kind of fortuitous occurrence that makes Santa Barbara such a special place for fans of classical music. He writes, “By a happy coincidence, Santa Barbara has the opportunity to experience perhaps the most celebrated works of Russian music within a three-day period. We’re thrilled to have CAMA as our partner in celebrating this rare aligning of artistic stars.”
On Wednesday, February 27, at 8 p.m., the Russian National Orchestra performs at The Granada Theatre (granadasb.org). On Thursday, February 28, at 5:30 p.m., opera and concert ticket holders can attend a private screening of Alexander Sokurov’s film Russian Ark at the Impact Hub Chapala Center. And on Friday, March 1, at 7:30 p.m., Opera Santa Barbara will present the first of two performances of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Lobero Theatre (lobero.org).