Sunday the Da Capo ensemble performed a program here at Bard College of music by Russian composers who all attended: Elena Antonenko, Boris Filanovski, Alexander Radvilovitch, Vladimir Tarnopolski, Kirill Umansky, and my friend Dmitri Riabtsev, who three years ago was invaluable in helping me produce my opera Cinderella’s Bad Magic in Moscow and St. Petersburg. There was a panel discussion before the concert on the subject of how life has changed for composers since the fall of communism. Some claimed it had changed not at all, others that it was a little different, but all talked about the near-absence of support for Russian composers at home, having lost state support and having no tradition of private patronage.
In the question-and-answer period, I noted that those of us in new music are inundated these days with living composers from Estonia, the Ukraine, Georgia, and asked what was different about Russia that its composers couldn’t match the relative visibility of those of its satellites. Responses exhibited a liveliness born of frustration and complete recognition of what I was saying. All pretty much agreed that since the Baltic republics had been occupied by a foreign power, they turned to nationalism to preserve their self-image. It became a point of honor for Estonian conductors like Paavo Jarvi, Finnish ones like Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Ukrainian ones like Virko Baley to go out and champion their countrymen. Since Russia was the central power, it had no national image to defend, and Russian conductors and performers feel no similar mandate to perform their compatriots. Thus the perceptions, at least, of Russian composers, who think that even we Americans – having some tradition of private new-music funding – are better off than they are.
Since then I’ve received a very nice e-mail from Erkki-Sven Tüür, the leading Estonian composer of my generation, letting me know (I hope he won’t mind my revealing) that he reads my blog from his retreat on the Baltic island of Hiiumaa, which gives me even greater delight in recounting the above anecdote. From Moscow and St. Petersburg to rural Estonia via a small college in rural America – so travel the cultural perceptions of the internet age.