Maestro In Memoriam
Today’s post is a rather somber affair. On November 22nd, the inimitable Dmitri Hvorostovsky (pronounced voh-roh-STOV-ski) died. Many of you will not know who he is. For those of you who participate in the opera community or who have an affinity for Russian folk songs and vocal artistry, then you will know Hvorostovsky as one of the most acclaimed baritones to ever step foot upon the stage.
While I was reading Tasha Alexander’s latest Lady Emily offering, Death in St. Petersburg, I found myself listening to more and more music from Russia, most particularly Dmitri Hvorostovsky, a Russian baritone I have loved for many years. (If you have not had a chance to read Alexander’s latest mystery, I highly encourage you to do so. It contains such appreciation for the world of ballet as well as a true devotion to the poetry and artistry of St. Petersburg, and, by degrees, Russia as well.) Since Dmitri devoted much of his career to creating a kinship between opera lovers and his homeland’s masterful offerings from such greats as Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky, Rachmaninov, and Stravinsky, it seemed only fitting to play his Russian folksongs- Kalinka, Orchi Chornia, and Kadga, Dusha included- while reading about Pushkin and Prima Ballerian Pierina Legnani with her 32 fouetté, and the Mariinsky Theater, not to mention the Winter Palace and Peter Carl Fabergé.
Like when Placido Domingo recorded Perhaps Love with pop artist John Denver in order to expose an entire generation of people to the beauty of opera, I am thoroughly appreciative of Dmitri’s contribution to the operatic world. Though he traveled far and wide, receiving accolades and commendations on an international scale, he always maintained a reverence for his heritage and the homeland where his love of opera was birthed. Having grown up knowing and fellowshipping with many Russian people, I have always been touched by their intrinsic appreciation for the artistic world. In reading the obituaries about Hvorostovsky, I came to realize that this man was a shining example of the Russian esthetic, with its profound love for stark beauty and visceral passions expressed expertly whether in painting, architecture, music, sculpture, ballet, theater, etc. He was not only an example, however; he spent his life sharing his love for his heritage with his followers and fans, thereby cultivating a love within them for what he loved so deeply.
Born to parents who both harbored a deep seated love of music, Dmitri’s foray into a musical career seems fated. Though his parents were never able to pursue their musical passions, Dmitri was afford the luxury from a very early age. In fact, it was at his father’s insistence, something which must have caused a bit of upheaval in the Hvorostovsky household as Dmitri’s paternal grandfather was a die-hard Communist who had forced his own son into a career of engineering.
Since his parents both had demanding work schedules, Dmitri spent his weeks with his maternal grandparents and saw his parents on the weekends. His grandmother was an amateur folk singer, and it seems that she passed that love on to her grandson.
One can almost imagine their nights settled around the fire, a balalaika balanced upon Yaya’s knee and Dmitri at the piano playing the famous folk lullaby Kalinka as snow fell on their quiet, isolated hometown of Krasnoyarsk in Eastern Siberia. (In truth, I do not know with any certainty whether Dmitri’s grandmother played the balalaika, but the image is quiet idyllic, particularly where the Kalinka lyrics are concerned: Little snowberry, snowberry, snowberry of mine…)
Dmitri, however, did play the piano and it was his proficiency on that instrument that brought his musical interest to his father’s attention. That is when his parents enrolled him in a program at the local music school; it ended when Dmitri was 14 years of age. A couple of tumultuous years passed involving street gangs, drunken brawls, and several broken noses for Dmitri before his father enrolled him at Krasnoyarsk Conservatory to study choral conducting and singing. He made his debut as Monterone in Rigoletto (see post here for more information about this opera) at nineteen. Very early on, his talent was recognized, earning him a government apartment while he was still a student, a largely unheard of occurrence.
When Gorbachov institutes perestroika, Russian artists were allowed more freedom of travel, although Dmitri’s first adventure abroad to the Concours International de Chant competition in France in 1988 at the age of 26 came complete with the accompaniment of two K.G.B. agents. Their presence did not seem to impinge on his performance, as he won the competition. The next year, he won BBC’s Cardiff Singer of the World and from there the world, at least the operatic world, was his oyster.
Even with his incomparable ability, Dmitri seemed to retain a kernel of humility, building his career performance by performance, taking on each new opera with great forethought, juxtaposing his current abilities with how he desired to grow as an artist. Given that the Italian bel canto had not been on the repertoire of techniques taught in Russia during her Soviet Union days, Dmitri relied on recordings to teach himself the full richness of legato, smooth, connected successive notes with no breaks between them. It is therefore all the more amazing that in the twilight of his career, it was the Verdian operas where he was most praised.
Though Dmitri counted critically acclaimed and audience applauded performances in innumerable operatic blockbusters among his repertoire, most recent and laudably his genius interpretive work and vocal baritone integrity in Verdian opera, his life’s work shows quite clearly that he never forgot his heritage. Throughout the whole of his career, whether in operas he chose to purvey or solo events he orchestrated and performed in, Dmitri always paid homage to his home, Russia, breathing new life and appreciation into the musical masterpieces that have been overlooked or forgotten in the tumult of modern history.
As per his last will and testament, Dmitri was cremated and his ashes divided and placed in two caskets. One casket was buried in Novodevichy cemetery, Moscow’s most famous cemetery as it houses the remains of Russia’s most important political, scientific, cultural, and artistic personages. The other casket will travel to Krasnoyarsk to be buried in the town in which he was raised and where he first fell in love with the world of music. To lose such a magnificent talent in the prime of his life is a tragedy. The world has been deprived of his greatness. And, perhaps, as his remains are buried beneath the winter hardened ground of his homeland, the elements will carry a lullaby on the wind, gentling him to his final resting place, Ah, under the pine, the green one, Lay me down to sleep, Rock-a-bye, baby, rock-a-bye, baby, Lay me down to sleep.*
*Russian traditional folksong, Kalinka