What better place for Londoners to submerge themselves in Russian culture than Chelsea? Here the Russian language can be heard at virtually every street-corner, the area a favourite residence and leisure hotspot for many well-off expats. But it’s not just about the clichéd luxurious world of Meet the Russians: some truly soulful glimpses of Russian culture sometimes seep through, and the concert at Cadogan Hall last Friday was one example. ‘The Russian Virtuosi of Europe’ have created an eclectic evening uniting Tchaikovsky, modern Colombian composer Arturo Cuellar and the Russian rock legend Boris Grebenshikov in an intriguing programme of Russian-ness in musical form.
The prospect of hearing Boris Grebenshikov in London soon after his 60th jubilee debut at Albert Hall undoubtedly attracted many to the evening. Grebenshikov, the frontman of the 70s & 80s Soviet band Aquarium, is rightly known at home as the Godfather of Russian Rock. Since his days in the Soviet St. Petersburg’s rock scene, Grebenshikov has undergone some drastic existential changes, coming under the influence of various religious and mystical tendencies which would now be considered New Age. Of these the most surprising perhaps for the Russian audience was his turn to Tibetan Buddhism. While even some earlier Aquarium albums such as ‘Radio-Afrika’, made in collaboration with musician extraordinaire Sergei Kuryokhin, showed psychedelic hints of Eastern religions, it was only after the 90s that Buddhist mysticism came heavily to influence Grebenshikov’s music, stage presence and overall philosophy – leaking symbolically into his new full name Boris Purushottama Grebenshikov. Yet, despite recently filling the Albert Hall, he remains unknown to the average Englishman. BG, as he’s colloquially known, had already made his mark on London’s music scene last May, when he designed the stage as an enchanting luminescent Buddhist garden. This new visit was a surprise, as the Godfather of Russian Rock joined forces with a Classical music venue and a classical orchestra.
The first part of the programme showed no glimpse of BG and was led by a classical troupe of some of the finest Russian string musicians – ‘Russian Virtuosi of Europe’ – formed in 2004. Their programme elegantly avoided the clichés of Russian classical music, the opening piece Latin Fantasy on Russian Themes being written especially for this concert by Colombian composer Arturo Cuellar – a musical investigation of Russian motifs from a refreshing Latin American perspective. As a modern piece it combined classical music, folklore and jazz and evoked the subtle transcontinental sympathy between Russia and Latin America. The Souvenir de Florence that followed might have been written by Tchaikovsky – a pillar of Russian Classical music – yet had a European air, the work being written during the composer’s European summer in Italy. BG’s own take on classical music, in the second part of the programme, made a smooth transition with his piece Faune suite, especially arranged by the British composer Simon Bass, followed by some of his all-time lyrical favourites.
The diverse combination of influences that came together at Cadogan Hall was unusual and therapeutic as BG’s velvety vocal blended with the classical orchestra in the second part of the programme. The Cadogan Hall itself, tucked away behind Sloane Square, is a frequent host to Russia’s rich classical music heritage. Yet this concert, unconventional for this largely classical venue, reaffirmed that rock and classical music can work together as they share a final destination of a calm, poetic and nostalgic Russian-ness that has been unheard of for some time now.