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SF Symphony's Great Performer Series: Dimitri Hvorostovsky, Baritone

By Seán Martinfield

January 31, 2006

It was clear we were in for a series of encores - no way is Dmitiri leaving the stage. Come the traditional Gypsy romance, "Ochi Chyornie" (Dark Eyes), you know it's over and time to zoom between the lines if what you want is an autograph and fleeting exchange with the best-equipped Baritone and most striking of Leading Men on the classical stage. Forty minutes later, out he comes. Apollo, god of musicians and poets, has favored this man. Back in the Old Days (when women fainted) we guys would have hoisted him to our shoulders, raced down Market Street and filled Lotta's Fountain with champagne - or, in this instance, the finest of Russian Vodka. Alas, it's late Sunday night and we're all over 40 - including Dmitri and Conductor Constantine Orbelian - who have just rendered over two hours worth of breath-taking musical brilliance. Nevertheless, they head toward the autograph line, and through a din of vigorous applause, I yell out in my best cadet's tenor, "Hooray!"

I pulled out the booklet from their CD, "Passione di Napoli", purchased at the Symphony's Gift Shop during Intermission and the last one on the shelf. "Ah! The Music Critic!" he says to me, raising a knowing eyebrow toward Maestro Orbelian seated at his left. ("Ah-ha, yourself!" cries my critic within.) Dmitiri's voice is much lighter in conversation than the hefty equipment pulled out for PRINCE IGOR and EUGENE ONEGIN not two hours before. Hvorostovsky is indeed the rare and definitive dramatic baritone, separate and apart from such bass-baritones as Bryn Terfel. In virtually accent-free English, he goes on to suggest that - since he has such a large pen - it would be better to sprawl his signature over the liner notes than across his portrait. "However you prefer," I replied, with a smile, opening my Program for one more of his John Hancocks. (Stalling, I check out his shock of white hair, the wide cheek bones, a boxer's ski-lift nose - so far, none of the current portraits have captured the native Siberian's carnal appeal.) Orbelian, born in San Francisco, a celebrated pianist prior to his appointment as Permanent Guest Conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic, twinkles as he signs between the lines. (He's a Russian bear.) He knows. The concert was an undisputed two-man job, dripping with genius; a startling collaboration packing an intense wallop and permanently piercing the heart.

Standing in straight lines behind the orchestra, is the Pacific Boychoir, prepared by its founding director, visionary Kevin Fox. Similar to the Vienna Boys Choir in music education and performance skill, this Oakland-based Academy can swell with pride to have been selected for this leg of the Hvorostovsky tour. In Washington, DC, it was the mixed adult voices of the Cathedral Choral Society and in Florida they took on the Chorus from Yale. (Ask any of them - it all starts on "Ah".) The boys added harmonic texture and spiritual poignancy to the second half of the program, a collection of early 20th century Russian war songs referred to as, "Songs of the Great Patriotic War", all very dear to the Russians standing in lines around me. Dmitiri and Constantine have recorded seventeen of these songs (by various composers) under the title, "Where Are You, My Brothers?" Orbelian's clever arrangements allow the weary soldiers to all huddle under Dmitiri's umbrella while he becomes their one voice, thus creating a new sort-of-faux song cycle for an heroic classical Lead needing more than standard fare.

Not since Robert Merrill have I been so inspired by the baritone voice, especially from one whose breath control can bolster the extra-long passage while pumping plenty of warmth and vitality into the demanding and often melancholic Russian songbook. Hvorostovsky is still the ideal young lover; he will become the perfect "Simon Boccanegra" and "Rigoletto". As with Merrill, he is ruggedly handsome, looks fabulous in a tuxedo, and - from my vantage point at the autograph table - keeps himself in centerfold condition. Earlier at the Gift Shop, the lovely lady blushed when she asked if I were getting my CD signed. It seemed to be the night for nodding and twinkling. Then I inquired if she had any posters available of Dmitri. "Ah, wouldn't THAT be wonderful?!" And I withdrew between the lines.

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