Concert Review

National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia Victoria Hall, Halifax 26 November 1999

Whilst a ceaseless procession of musicians from abroad were flying in and out of the Huddersfield contemporary music festival, a drama was unfolding nearby. Normally Seen&Heard would not be reviewing symphony concerts of standard repertoire, which are thought to do nicely without critical attention, but the fate of the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia demanded notice and thought.

Claimed to be possibly the oldest symphony orchestra in the world, it was founded as the Siberian Symphony Orchestra in 1879 by the Emperor's Music Society in Tomsk, a renowned cultural centre which became known as 'the Athens of Siberia', and is said to still play a leading role in Russia. However, economic imperatives have obliged it to tour the world since 1994. Currently, it had embarked upon a gruelling schedule of nearly 40 one-night stands in two months, travelling daily to venues in Scandinavia, Holland, Luxembourg and UK, with Madrid and Barcelona to follow early next year.

Stark reality struck in Swansea on 25 November, two days into its first tour of Britain. Fewer than 100 tickets (priced at £8) were sold at the Branwyn Hall and money for food and accommodation ran out. Existing on a tight budget, they had been surviving on bread and cheese, sleeping ten to a room in hostels. In desperation some of the musicians busked outside McDonalds in Swansea's city centre, as an alternative to going straight back to Russia in their coaches, but they only succeeded in collecting about £20.

Succour came just down the road from Huddersfield. The good folk of Halifax, learning of the orchestra's plight, bought tickets for the orchestra's appearance in their town the following night, and offered accommodation in their homes. Global TeleSystems (, a 'global pioneer in wavelength division multiplexing technology', with its roots in Russia, responded immediately on learning about the orchestra's predicament, by covering the shortfall in their expenses so as to enable them to complete this first tour outside Russia.

So what of the concert itself? The 86 strong NPO of Russia is an impressively disciplined team, with no obvious weaknesses right to the back desks. Brass & wind have the characteristic Russian timbre rapidly disappearing as orchestras become more international, tending to lose their national identities. The Polish conductor Boguslaw Dawidow, a first foreign Artistic Director in Russia, appeared to have the orchestra's confidence and affection. His interpretations of Wagner's Tannhauser overture and Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony were good, straightforward accounts of the scores, with expression more dependent upon phrasing and dynamics than rubato. The orchestra played as if their life depended on it, as well they might, building cumulative excitement which swept us all in.

Jessie de Bellis, a Uruguayan pianist living in Holland, had joined the orchestra for their world tour, in which she is scheduled to give more than 400 concerto performances in more than 65 countries! She is tall, with a proud, imposing presence, back arched like a flamenco dancer, and gave a compelling and masterful performance of Liszt's 1st piano concerto.

It was the sort of concert which was salutary in reminding one that some of the most 'hackneyed' works in the repertoire are there for very good reason. Jessie de Bellis deservedly won an ovation and gave a highly rhythmic and strongly accented encore 'in honour of my own country', before signing copies of her CD (Avero Tango Brasiliero) of music by Ernesto Nazareth, who had once played alongside Villa-Lobos in a Rio de Janeiro cinema orchestra.

This human story was publicised in press and on TV and struck a chord of sympathy beyond those people who frequent symphony concerts. I count it fortunate that Seen&Heard was able to witness a memorable occasion, which completely belied the vicissitudes which these musicians had been enduring. It's too late for their Aberdeen concert yesterday, but if you live near Oxford, Denbighshire, Bournemouth or (again) Swansea and Halifax, do check the dates and go to hear the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia in one of its four touring programmes.

Tragic newsflash (6-12-99)
Things can get no worse for the NPO of Russia. No-one has been paid for 2 weeks. Their concert at Felixstowe was cancelled at the last minute. "the musicians were too weak with hunger to lift their instruments", said the conductor

Peter Grahame Woolf

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