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Raymond Stults, June 14

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Jun. 15th, 2011 | 11:47 am

Valery Gergiev and Vladimir Putin

June 15, 2011

The 14th International Tchaikovsky Competition kicked off last night with a concert featuring three past competition winners – conductor Vladimir Spivakov, who tied for a second prize in 1970, pianist Denis Matsuev, a controversial gold medalist in 1998, and soprano Albina Shagimuratova, a gold medalist in 2007 and probably the one truly outstanding talent to emerge from that year’s unmemorable competition.

But the real star at last night’s concert was its venue, the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, re-opening its doors after a year of thorough-going restoration. Visually, it proved resplendent, its dominant color of institutional yellow replaced by elegant pale olive, the cheap-looking panels that once lined its stage superseded by more solid material, stained to a dignified darker hue, and the composers’ faces peering from its upper walls emerging clean-scrubbed.

As to the Great Hall’s most valuable asset, its acoustics of practically unrivaled quality, they seemed somewhat clean-scrubbed as well. The ear, of course, can easily play tricks. But I experienced a sound last night even more crystal-clear than what I recall hearing before the hall closed last summer. It seemed a bit brash at first, but that was probably due to the music, Dmitry Shostakovich’s loud and often raucous “Festive Overture,” that opened the concert. Once things calmed down, with a surprisingly nuanced performance by Matsuev of the opening movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, the sound, whether bold or delicate, began to emerge with almost miraculous clarity.

The concert program proved a mixed bag. It seemed something of a disservice to Tchaikovsky to play just single movements of the  Piano Concerto and the Fourth Symphony. Out of context, they sounded rather forlorn.

The concert was preceded by the usual speeches heard on “gala” occasions. They were mercifully brief in case of ubiquitous master-of-ceremonies Svyatoslav Belza and the normally garrulous Valery Gergiev, it being left to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to deliver a customary long-winded greeting.

Today, it’s on to the first group of pianists playing their first competition round, and besides the possibility of discovering some truly outstanding talent among them, there will definitely be the pleasure of savoring the visual delights of the restored Great Hall and delving further into its acoustics, which from a nearly back-row seat sounded slightly altered, but still as magical as ever.

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