In Moscow, a symphony orchestrated to survive

MOSCOW — The turbulent days of perestroika brought opportunities for entrepreneurs as the Soviet Union struggled in its death throes. But few ventures could have seemed less likely than the formation of a new symphony orchestra by two sisters with no experience in the music business.

Yet in 1989, Ellen and Marina Levine established the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, and in the years since it has risen under their management to the ranics of Russia's top orchestras without taking one ruble from the government- Now on one of its many tours, the orchestra is performing in Germany, the Netherlands and Croatia, with concerts in Amsterdam's celebrated Con-certgebouw on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Levines' years as emigres working in the advertising and marketing business in the United States were crucial for their business skills. "As changes took place, we began to feel positive and excited about coming back to Russia." Marina said in an interview. But even the Levines didn't expect the orchestra to endure, since they assembled it for a onetime worldwide tour with a British rock group, after which it would disband.

The rock band's popularity outside Britain proved to be overestimated, and the tour was abandoned. "The question became, 'What do we do with the orchestra?'" Marina said. "We felt a responsibility, since these people signed on with a world tour in mind, and we decided to try to find work in Moscow." And so the Moscow Symphony became one of Moscow's numerous orchestras, some of which are loosely organized and perform only occasionally. Moscow's orchestra scene is quite unlike that of American cities, where efforts are concentrated on a single orchestra. One can speak of Moscow's "big five" orchestras just as one speaks of the big five orchestras in the United States, although in each case shifts in quality make the term an unsatisfactory one.

Shortly after the creation of the Moscow Symphony, another private orchestra was formed in Moscow, the Russian National Orchestra led by the renowned pianist Mikhail PIctnev, who at the time had little experience as a conductor. But where the Russian National had considerable financial backing from the West, the Moscow Symphony lacked both a major sponsor and a musical director of stature.

"We had no fear of failure because we had no knowledge of what to be afraid of." recalled Ellen. But persistence paid off in 1992 when the orchestra was engaged by the record label Marco Polo and its sister label. Naxos. The first project was a recording of the complete symphonies of the Italian composer Gian Francesco Malipiero under the baton of Anlonio dc Almeida, who died in 1997. Best known for interpretations of music from his native France, including recordings of such operatic rarities as Halevy's "La Juive" and Thomas's "Hamlet," Almeida at the time had no particular experience with Russia or Russian music.

Yet the relationship between Almeida and the orchestra clicked. "He fell in love with Russia and the musical life in Moscow," Ellen said, "and was determined to make the Moscow Symphony into Russia's finest orchestra." His first concert was scheduled for Oct. 6,1993, three days after President Boris Yeltsin ordered the storming of the so-called White House, then the seat of Parliament, after contemporary Russia's second coup attempt. "We kept calling Tony to find out what was going on because he was at the Metropol Hotel and could watch CNN," Marina recalls. "But the concert in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory — a French program of Saint-Saens and Franck — went on as planned, with only one player missing because he couldn't gel his cello over the barricades." Almeida instituted the orchestra's annual subscription scries in the Great Hall and led the orchestra in more than 20 recordings. In addition, he helped attract its primary corporate supporter, the food manufacturer Nestle, which provides about one-third of the orchestra's budget. So Almeida's death at the age of 69 following a short illness came as a severe blow to the orchestra. Unsolicited offers of assistance flowed in from various conductors, but the Levincs turned to the charismatic Vladimir Ziva, then 40, who had often guest-conducted the orchestra and was the artistic director of the orchestra in Nizhny Novgorod. He quickly became the orchestra's de facto artistic director and was formally appointed to the post last year.

Ziva and the orchestra have formed the kind of closely knit musical partnership that is not always present with Moscow's other orchestras, especially those led by artists with busy careers in the West. Last year the federal Ministry of Culture dismissed Yev-geni Svetlanov, the long-time conductor of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra, on the grounds thai he had neglected his orchestra. And the relationship between the Russian National Orchestra and Vladimir Spivakov, the noted violinist who succeeded Pletnev as chief conductor two years ago, has yet to gel. But the Moscow Symphony is developing' its own characteristically Russian sound, rich and soulful. Recent seasons have seen annual master classes led by the distinguished Finnish conductor Jorma Panula, and the orchestra recently instituted an internship program under which young Amcr-msicians can spend a few months with early participant in the master classes Ithe Dutch conductor Arthur Arnold, will lead the concerts in the Concer-tgebouw; other concerts in the current tour will be conducted by Ziva and the German Wolfgang Seeliger.

As with any Russian performing arts ensemble, tours are an economic necessity. According to Marina Levine, the orchestra's annual budget is still under $500,000, but that figure does not include tours or recordings. Still, it's not a lot from which to pay the players' base salaries, administrative expenses and hall rentals in Moscow. The schedule of around 50 concerts a season allows the players to teach and free-lance.

The decline in the classical record business has led to cutbacks in the orchestral recording activity, but it has more than 100 discs to its credit, some on its own label but mostly for Marco Polo and Naxos. It found a special niche with its critically acclaimed recordings of vintage film scores. Under the baton of the American William Stromberg, the orchestra has recorded some 16 Hollywood scores by such composers as Erich Korngold, Max Steiner and Bernard Herrmann. One certainty is that running a Russian orchestra is full of surprises. On an earlier tour, a musician was arrested in Germany for bringing in too many cheap Russian cigarettes, and Marina Levine had to pay the fme with her credit card over the phone. And a recording session of a rare work a few years ago had to be canceled when the ceiling of the library that housed the only available full score collapsed, making it inaccessible. "We'll have to think up an excuse for this,” Marina recalls Almeida telling her, "because nobody will believe the truth.”

George Loomis is a music writer based in Moscow.