Vladimir Tarnopolski
Russian Music Goes To The Ball

By George Loomis, Financial Times, 2003

Russia, an often inscrutable country, has of late intrigued music lovers with the question: "What's going on there in new music?" Conferences and mini-festivals are periodically organised in the west. But it's probably an even bet that you can sample as much interesting new Russian music at such events as you could in a whole concert season in Moscow. A dozen years ago Alfred Shnitke, Edison Denisov and Sofiya Gubaidulina emerged from a Communist system whose hostility toward advanced musical idioms often thwarted their compositional aspirations. Now only Gubaidulina, 71, survives, and obvious successors to this illustrious trio are few.

Yet by any reckoning one is Vladimir Tarnopolski, a faculty member at the Moscow Conservatory since 1992 and director of its new music studio. He is the main standard-bearer of musical modernism in Russia and a composer with a fast-growing international following.

Last week he presided at the Moscow Forum contemporary music festival, which he founded in 1994, then promptly traveled to London for the world premiere of his 50-minute musical theatre piece Cinderella, which takes place at the Barbican on Monday. Performing it will be the London Schools' Symphony Orchestra, a huge children's chorus, and six actors, all under the direction of the conductor Peter Ash.

As Tarnopolski explained last week, the idea for a piece based on Roald Dahl's Cinderella came 10 years ago from the writer and film director Donald Sturrock, who eventually adapted Dahl's text. "I immediately liked Dahl's irony and humour, but one reason the piece took so long to complete - I also wrote two operas during this period! - is that I couldn't decide on a form.

Should it be an opera or a purely instrumental piece? I finally decided it should exist in multiple versions. The full version will be given at the Barbican, but it can also be performed by fewer performers."

Tarnopolski is a dedicated modernist, and the advanced style of much of his instrumental music can challenge the listener. Yet, as with his opera When Time Overflows its Margins, written for the 1999 Munich Biennale, Cinderella draws on diverse musical idioms. "The ball scene has elements of pop and rock as well as a tango," says Tarnopolski.

"There's even some rap. I think the time for heavy divisions between musical styles is over." Moreover, Cinderella constantly alternates between music of relative simplicity, performed by the children's chorus and orchestra, and complex music played by an 18-member professional ensemble. "Since it's an English piece, I also made some references to Handel and the renaissance masters, and there are some Russian touches too."

Tarnopolski's teaching career coincides with the post-Communist era, but his student days were another matter. Born in 1955 in the Ukraine, he is often credited with studying with Denisov at the Moscow Conservatory but notes that it was only for instrumentation; apparently Denisov was considered too subversive to teach composition.

"At the conservatory, I wrote one set of pieces for exams and another set for myself." A visit to the Warsaw's big contemporary music festival in the mid 1980s convinced Tarnopolski that he was on the right course with the pieces he wrote for himself. "At first the government wouldn't let me go, but the composer Luigi Nono intervened and they changed their minds. I thought Nono was slightly crazy the way he'd talk about the vast possibilities for musical timbre. He'd pick up a violin - he couldn't play the violin at all - and show how a note would sound different with the bow here or with a little more pressure applied there. Only now do I appreciate the wisdom of what he was saying."

It's symptomatic of conditions in Russia that the premiere of Cinderella, like that of When Time Overflows its Margins, is outside his country. "Our government does nothing to encourage contemporary music, and Moscow orchestras practically never program it. Moscow has around 40 orchestras, though many give only a few concerts. Yet according to a journal here, concert programs are dominated by 20 works. So Moscow has more orchestras than pieces that are played!"

Tarnopolski admits that a shortage of interesting new Russian music is one reason the category was under-represented in the Moscow Forum festival. But the festival takes an international perspective, and this year saw performances from such distinguished ensembles as the Schonberg Ensemble from the Netherlands and the Da Capo Chamber Players from the United States as well as from Moscow's Studio for New Music ensemble, a group of which Tarnopolski is justly proud.

One theme the festival explored was the way composers build on earlier music. John Harbison's "November 19, 1828" proved to be a beguiling series of "hallucinations" in homage to Schubert, and in "Eclips" Klaas de Vries develops an arresting musical construct from Scriabin's late piano work, "Vers la flame".

Typically, the festival called attention to a historically important Russian. Nikolai Obuchov's Four Balmont Songs (sensationally sung by Barbara Hannigan) continue the mystical vein of Scriabin while containing passages that plunge into atonality. Because Tarnopolski is artistic director of Moscow Forum, he refrains from programming his own music. It's a commendable display of principle, yet it's a pity to deprive the festival of some of Russia's best new music.