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To Russia, With Musical Love — After 22 Years' Absence

Apr 20, 2012
Originally published on April 20, 2012 6:06 pm

This week, music is bringing Americans and Russians together in a way that policy discussions never can. And don't call that a cliche in front of the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

If U.S. relations with Russia have hit a sticky patch over Syria and other issues lately, that didn't stop the Chicago Symphony from thrilling a Russian audience this past Wednesday night, just as it did on its last visit — to the then-Soviet Union in 1990.

Lana Vyrazhanova loved the concert at the prestigious Moscow Conservatory. She says it is first and foremost about relations — the music comes second. "It seems to me," Vyrazhanova said, "that when the Russians stand and applaud, they aren't just applauding the music, they are applauding the American people."

Dmitry Smirnov's Space Odyssey opened the concert, as it did again in Moscow on Thursday and will in St. Petersburg on Saturday. The three-concert tour was organized in less than a year, when U.S. diplomats in Moscow refused to take no for an answer.

Before the concert, the Chicago Symphony's music director, Riccardo Muti, sat alongside the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, for a press conference. The Italian maestro admitted that music bringing people together can be a cliche.

"Culture is important, culture is important. We repeat so many times that culture is important, that culture is not important anymore," Muti said. "We are satisfied in repeating this phrase."

But Muti has taken orchestras to troubled places around the world, including Sarajevo after the war, and the power of music is not a cliche to him. "The problems in the world are created most of the time by the words," he said. "In fact, ambassadors, the less they speak, the better it is."

"Especially for me," Ambassador McFaul said, to laughter.

McFaul assumed his post in January, a month after disputed parliamentary elections sparked Russia's biggest street protests in years, and weeks ahead of a presidential vote that returned Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin.

"There's been some difficulties," McFaul said, "but if you look at the overall structure of the relationship, the overall record of achievement, on many dimensions, we see a lot of momentum in terms of U.S.-Russia relations."

The difficulties include controversy over meeting opposition figures during his first week on the job, and suggestions last month that his phone and email were being hacked. But McFaul was quick to mention the successes as well: "The new START treaty, the new 123 Agreement [on nuclear cooperation], cooperating on Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, the World Trade Organization."

The evening's main piece was Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5. The composer's widow, Irina, was in the audience and reportedly told Muti she enjoyed the performance. It was also special for the orchestra's principal oboist, Eugene Izotov.

"It's a particularly personal trip for me," Izotov said, "because this is the stage where my father and uncle played. I grew up on this stage. I first heard Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony as a kid out in the hall, so it's very moving."

In returning to the Conservatory's storied stage as an ambassador from President Obama's hometown, Izotov embodies the enormous changes — in Russia and in U.S.-Russian relations — since the orchestra last played here 22 years ago.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A very different kind of diplomacy is on display in Russia this week. Reporter Peter Van Dyk was in the audience in Moscow for a landmark performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

PETER VAN DYK, BYLINE: If U.S. relations with Russia have hit a sticky patch over Syria and other issues lately, that didn't stop the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from thrilling Russian audiences, just as it did on its last visit to the Soviet Union in 1990.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)

DR. LANA VYRAZHANOVA: (Foreign language spoken)

DYK: Lana Vyrazhanova loved the opening concert Wednesday at the prestigious Moscow Conservatory. She says it is first and foremost about relations - the music comes second.

VYRAZHANOVA: (Through Translator) It seems to me that when the Russians stand and applaud, they aren't just applauding the music, they are applauding the American people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SPACE ODYSSEY")

DYK: Dmitry Smirnov's "Space Odyssey" opened the Moscow concert, as it will in St. Petersburg tomorrow. The three-concert tour was organized in less than a year, when U.S. diplomats in Moscow refused to take Chicago's no for an answer.

Before the concert, the Chicago Symphony's music director, Riccardo Muti, faced the Russian media alongside the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul. The Italian maestro admitted that music bringing people together can be a cliche.

RICCARDO MUTI: Culture is important. Culture is important. We repeat so many times that culture is important that culture is not important anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MUTI: We are satisfied in repeating this phrase.

DYK: But Muti has taken orchestras to troubled places around the world, including Sarajevo after the war, and the power of music is not a cliche to him.

MUTI: The problems in the world are created most of the time by the words. In fact, ambassadors, the less they speak, better it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AMBASSADOR MICHAEL MCFAUL: Especially for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DYK: That's Ambassador McFaul. He assumed his post in January, a month after disputed parliamentary elections sparked Russia's biggest street protests in years, and weeks ahead of a presidential vote that returned Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin.

MCFAUL: There's been some difficulties, but if you look at the overall structural relationship, the overall record of achievement on many dimensions, we see a lot of momentum in terms of U.S.-Russia relations.

DYK: The difficulties include controversy over meeting opposition figures during his first week on the job, and suggestions last month that his phone and emails were being hacked. And the successes?

MCFAUL: The new START treaty, the new 123 Agreement, cooperating on Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, the World Trade Organization.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, SHOSTAKOVICH'S "SYMPHONY NO. 5")

DYK: On opening night, the main piece was Shostakovich's "Symphony No. 5." The composer's widow, Irina, was in the audience and reportedly told Muti she enjoyed the performance. It was also special for oboist Eugene Izotov.

EUGENE IZOTOV: It's a particularly personal trip for me because this is the stage where my father and uncle played. And I grew up on this stage. I first heard Shostakovich's "Fifth Symphony" as a kid out in the hall. So it's very moving.

DYK: In returning to the Conservatory's storied stage as an ambassador from President Obama's hometown, Izotov embodies the enormous changes in Russia and in U.S.-Russian relations since the CSO last played here 22 years ago.

For NPR News, I'm Peter Van Dyk in Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, SHOSTAKOVICH'S "SYMPHONY NO. 5")

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.