“Consider this a big Russian party,” Festival del Sole executive producer Charles Letourneau advised an eager crowd at Dario Sattui’s Castello di Amorosa last week.
Letourneau had just given us an update on how the best-laid plans of festival producers can and do go astray.
Two weeks earlier, renowned dashing Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He had been scheduled to headline the midweek concert along with the Russian National Orchestra.
The call went out for a replacement and two well-established Russian singers stepped up — tenor Daniil Shtoda — whose visa was approved only a few days prior to the concert — and baritone Rodion Pogossov, a terrific singer who is busy appearing with opera companies around the world as well as the just-concluded Spoleto Festival.
While conductor Constantine Orbelian was busy putting together a program of opera, folk and pop songs with the two vocalists, Letourneau asked Russia-born cellist Nina Kotova — a festival regular — and Style of Five — a St. Petersburg-based instrumental ensemble — to take part in the program.
For nearly two hours, the courtyard of the Calistoga castle winery was filled with all manner of music, ranging from the well-known “Polonaise” of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” to the familiar melody, “Podmoskovnye Vechera,” which British jazzman Kenny Ball turned into the hit “Midnight in Moscow” in the early 1960s.
Stoda and Pogossov both offered arias from “Eugene Onegin,” following them up with Russian folk and pop songs. Stoda concentrated mostly on the Russian folk catalog, Pogossov’s material was more in the pop music vein.
The “Variations on a Rococo Theme” was the closest Tchaikovsky ever came to writing a full concerto for cello and orchestra.
This piece is pretty difficult to play, but Kotova, with her rich tone and lovely lyrical playing, almost made the work sound easy. The audience loved the Finale where she, for lack of a better phrase, let it rip. Orbelian and the Russian National Orchestra provided solid accompaniment
The Style of Five performed on Russian folk instruments — gusly, domra, bayan (accordion) and double bass balalayka — accompanied at times by their compatriots in the larger orchestra.
The program took us from concert hall to the steppes of Russia and back again. It was just as Letourneau proclaimed — a memorable Russian party, one where some of us familiar with the haunting Moscow nights tune could actually sing along. The whole affair was “otlitschno.”