On Saturday night, thanks to UMS and M-Prize, the city of Ann Arbor had the privilege of drinking in one of the finest displays of musicianship in the world, ushered in by the quartet Russian Renaissance.
Founded in 2015, “Russian Renaissance performs high-caliber traditional folk music through a modern lens.” As the $100,00 grand-prize winners of the 2017 M-Prize chamber arts competition, they received a spot on the star-studded UMS 2017-18 season and played a diverse and engaging program to an appreciative audience in Rackham Auditorium.
Given the group’s extremely unique instrumentation that is quite unfamiliar to American audiences, many entered the concert hall with no idea what to expect. Others who were in Ann Arbor last summer and witnessed the group’s winning performance couldn’t wait to hear them again. Yet for those familiar and unfamiliar with their work, Russian Renaissance delivered the unexpected.
The program began with a fresh and inviting arrangement of a Bach Fantasia and Fugue. They followed this with the Concerto Grosso No. 1 of avant-garde composer Alfred Schnittke, one of the 20th century’s great mashup artists. They performed music that is often perceived as dissonant and upsetting with true conviction and spunk, and I have yet to hear a livelier rendition of his music. They also played delicate and heartfelt music from international films, Duke Ellington, Tchaikovsky, and Russian folk tunes. Their dazzling arrangements contained some surprise appearances, including The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Grieg. I was amazed by their dynamic range as a group: their Bach was so delicate you almost wanted to hold your breath for fear of missing a beautiful moment, but their tangos were bombastic and rapturous. Just when you thought that they had exploited every possible color from their instrumentation, they pulled out another.
I’ve been trying to put my finger on what exactly made the performance so engaging and unforgettable for me. Was it the diverse program that spanned centuries of composers from around the world? Was it the fact that they played two hours of music completely from memory? Was it their colorful arrangements? Was it their perfect display of technique, virtuosity, and ensemble playing?
I think my indecisiveness is a testament to the pure musicianship that radiated from these four performers. They were clearly masters, but they were also interested in connecting with one another and the audience. I often felt like a fly on the wall of a delightful dinner conversation among four long-time friends. I felt free to enjoy the music along with them: giggling at their inside jokes, tapping my toes, holding my breath. They had complete control over the sound they made, and it was easy to get swept up in the world of each piece.
This performance made me feel incredibly optimistic for the future of chamber music, lead in part by the innovative minds behind M-Prize. As one of the most intimate and vulnerable performance mediums, chamber music is also charged with the power to bring about palpable and rapid change in the realm of Western classical music. Russian Renaissance is certainly doing their part in contributing to the “rebirth” of instrumental music today.
If you missed the performance, do yourself a favor and watch them here. Or, get excited about their first album, which is coming soon!