Pick-up orchestras mar reputation of Russian music
Fabio Mastrangelo, the Italian principal conductor of the State Hermitage Orchestra – St. Petersburg Camerata, was in the northern capital when he discovered that his orchestra was supposedly touring abroad.
“We found out that while we were at home that an orchestra with our name was touring Japan,” said Mastrangelo, “We were quite surprised.”
This was not the respected Hermitage Orchestra but a fake created to exploit its name, one of many such pick-up orchestras, music insiders say, that are used to fool the concert-going public abroad.
Such orchestras are also called “telefonny orchestra,” because they are created by ringing up musicians listed on a database and put together before a tour.
Everything is done on the cheap, and it is not uncommon for the musicians of the orchestra to meet for the first time at the airport as they fly out on a tour, said one former member of such a pick-up ensemble in an interview with The Moscow News.
‘Russians’ from Bulgaria
It was not the first time that Mastrangelo, who moved to Russia in 2002 and now has Russian citizenship, had encountered a fake orchestra.
In 2011, Mastrangelo was in Sicily visiting a musician friend and paid a visit to the festival the friend had organized in a small village to hear a Russian orchestra play.
“The orchestra was obviously not of a good level, not even decent,” said Mastrangelo, “[I thought] they must be exhausted or something else and at the first chance I went up to a few of the players and started speaking to them in Russian; nobody could understand me.”
The orchestra, whose name was the impressive sounding “Grande Orchestra Sinfonica Russa,” was actually made up of Romanian and Bulgarian musicians with “not the tiniest connection to Russia,” he said.
The plan would have worked if Mastrangelo hadn't been there. “Who do you find in a small village in Sicily who speaks Russian?” he said. “Not many people but I happened to be there.”
“You got a terrible orchestra and there is not even one Russian there,” he told his friend at the time.
Coming to America
In 2011, the New York Times wrote a series of articles on the phenomenon of such orchestras in the United States including pick-up orchestras from Russia. One, the Dublin Philharmonic, was made up of mainly Bulgarian musicians.
These orchestras exploit the reputation of Russian orchestras using “key words” in their titles such as “Bolshoi,” “State,” and “Academy,” said the former fake orchestra member, so as to create a name which can impress not so knowledgeable foreign audiences.
When Mastrangelo’s orchestra got in touch with those who organized the fake tour to Japan, the explanation as to why their name was used was almost endearingly simple. They told us that they chose the name as the State Hermitage Orchestra is a better orchestra and gets more concerts, he said.
One of the New York Times revelations was about the tour of the “Tschaikowski” State Orchestra of St. Petersburg, organized by a U.S. company, Columbia Artists Management (CAM), which used photos of another orchestra in its publicity materials.
Mastrangelo played a part in exposing the orchestra. He was on the CAM web site when he spotted the name with a photo of what turned out to be a completely different orchestra – his wife's.
When he showed his wife, Olesya Terpychnaya, a flutist at the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra the web site, “she enlarged the photo and said, ‘this is where I sit.’” After an even more detailed examination, he found himself in the audience too.
The chief conductor of St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra told the New York Times that the “Tschaikowski” did not exist and called their behavior “immoral” and “illegal.”
“This kind of thing is really disturbing,” Mastrangelo told The Moscow News, saying such tours devalued the work of top quality orchestras. “I'm very offended by this kind of thing. It will eventually lead to us getting less work.”
On the road
Life on such fake tours is actually no picnic, said the musician who took part in a tour with a fake orchestra to the United States. The pay is tiny, and musicians are constantly on the move. The orchestras play forty to fifty concerts over sixty days, travelling hundreds of miles between each event.
After meeting at the airport for the first time, the orchestra had to work hard to not embarrass themselves, he said but “by the end of three weeks, we weren't bad.”
When he joined the fake orchestra, it was made up of musicians from Moscow and St. Petersburg but now, with musicians economically better off in the big cities, recruits mainly come from the provinces.
“For many musicians, it is the only chance to go on tour and to see the world and play as they can play,” he said.
The Russian music world is a big family, said the musician, and everyone knows of the fake orchestras.
Indeed, Mastrangelo later met one of the musicians who had taken part in the tour to Japan. He was from a provincial town.
The problem of fake orchestras is systemic and organizers and the public, especially in the United States and Asia needed to be educated about it, said Ilgiz Yanbukhtin, the international director for the respected Moscow City Symphony - Russian Philharmonic.
"Americans are not very discerning with Russian brands. They know the Russian National Orchestra, for instance, they could know a few other names, but they don't know them very well,” said Yanbukhtin, “In part it is [also] Russia’s problem, as there are too many orchestras from Russia."
For Yanbukhtin and his colleagues, the problem of fake orchestras is a familiar one. Five years ago, Gayane Shiladzhyan, the CEO of the Russian Philharmonic, had a phone call from the U.S. embassy asking for information about a tour that they were doing.
It wasn't them but a fake, a group calling itself the Russian Philharmonic. This group had even released records under their fake name.
Local experts say that one of the problems is that there has been no response to the problem from the Russian community due to a lack of unity and undeveloped professional organizations.
The Association of the Heads of Symphony and Chamber Orchestras, based in St. Petersburg, did not respond to questions sent Wednesday.
The seriousness of the problem was illustrated when Yanbukhtin was involved in organizing the orchestra's first tour to the United States, set for January 2014. That was when concert halls asked, only half-jokingly, if they were real.