Pletnev: Russian music great risks disgrace

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Russian pianist and conductor Mikhail Pletnev, charged in Thailand with raping a 14-year-old boy, is a multi talented musician who built his own orchestra from scratch and enraptured audiences worldwide.

The charges against Pletnev, 53, artistic director of the Russian National Orchestra (RNO) which he founded in 1990 just before the break-up of the Soviet Union, have sent a shockwave through Russia's musical world.

"I was in shock," star Russian viola soloist Yuri Bashmet told Komsomolskaya Pravda. "I knew that Mikhail has a house in Thailand. But that the great conductor Mikhail Pletnev could be mixed up in such a scandal..."

The RNO, which Pletnev set up by essentially poaching the top players from the state Moscow orchestras at the time, has won acclaim throughout the world for its thrilling interpretations of the Russian classics.

At the same time as conducting the orchestra, Pletnev also pursued a career as a solo concert pianist, wowing audiences with often highly idiosyncratic but always deeply intense performances.

Born to a family of musicians in the Far Northern Russian city of Arkhangelsk, Pletnev started a full time musical education from the age of seven and by 1974 he was enrolled in the Moscow conservatory.

His breakthrough came in 1978 when he won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, the fiercely contested event held every four years that launched the careers of stars including Van Cliburn and Vladimir Ashkenazy.

When he turned to conducting and founded the RNO, the orchestra stunned Western critics with its ultra-refined sound.

"Right from the opening here, you feel that something special is happening," the British magazine Gramophone wrote in an ecstatic review of the team's recording of Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony.

The RNO has long boasted that it is unique among the principal Russian ensembles as a private institution funded with the support of individuals and firms who include the fund of Mikhail Prokhorov, one of Russia's richest men.

"He is a great musician, very original, one of those who is shaping the music scene worldwide," Russian music producer Mikhail Fikhtengoltz, who worked with Pletnev for three years, told AFP.

"Working with him was a pleasure, an honour and a great experience," he added.

Along with the conducting and piano concerts, Pletnev also found time to compose, arranging music from Russian ballets for piano but also writing a symphony and also a viola concerto for Bashmet.

In 2005 he won a Grammy award for best chamber music performance for his recording of Prokofiev's ballet Cinderella, in a two piano version with Martha Argerich that Pletnev arranged himself.

Several years ago he gave up piano concerts to concentrate full time on conducting.

A conductor who cut an aloof and even mystical presence on the podium, Pletnev gave little away about his life in rare interviews but repeatedly lambasted the collapse of culture in Russia after the Soviet Union.

"I see how what was created in Soviet times is collapsing and all this harm has come from commercialisation," he said in an interview with state Russian television.

"You can say, Stalin was a terrible tyrant, for sure, but he went to the Bolshoi Theatre."

Reports have said that in Thailand he owned a house, a restaurant named Euro Club as well as a school for music and Thai language. During his frequent visits to Thailand he was able to practice his hobbies of diving and flying.

© 2010 AFP

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