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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Orchestra Set to Bring a Forgotten Palace to Life

Next Tuesday, Chamber Orchestra Kremlin and its conductor Misha Rachlevsky, embark on a five-concert series to celebrate the opening of the newly restored Opera House on the grounds of Catherine the Great's estate at Tsaritsyno, bringing life to a remarkable structure which has lain unused and neglected for most of its 220-years existence.

Tsaritsyno must certainly be classified as among Moscow's major architectural curiosities, as well as among the Empress Catherine's most extravagant follies. Having decided on the need for a new palace on the city's outskirts, in the summer of 1775 she purchased an estate known as "Chyornaya Gryaz," or "Black Mud," immediately rechristened the place "Tsaritsyno" and commissioned Vasily Bazhenov, a rising young Moscow architect, to undertake the design and construction of a palace ensemble. Bazhenov labored for 10 years, completing half a dozen peripheral buildings, a magnificent gateway and pair of bridges, a triumphal arch and the basic structures of three adjacent pavilions intended to form the palace itself.

Catherine eventually paid a visit to the site in 1785 and pronounced herself unhappy with the palace. Bazhenov's pavilions were soon torn down, and for the next eight years or so a second architect, Matvei Kazakov, creator of the Moscow Kremlin's great domed Senate building, worked away at constructing a palace more to the Empress' liking. Plagued by a lack of funds brought on by the expenses of Russia's Turkish wars (and more than a little reminiscent of today's non-payments crisis), Kazakov was eventually forced to abandon the project, leaving behind the enormous shell of a building that still dominates the site.

Restoration of Bazhenov's completed structures began three years ago, and the Opera House, located just beyond the southwest corner of the unfinished palace, now appears in all of its late 18th-century glory. Like Bazhenov's other work at Tsaritsyno, the Opera House is a surprisingly harmonious blend of traditional Russian, classical and neo-gothic styles, executed in red brick and white-painted stone.

Although tagged with the name Opera House sometime in the 19th century, the building is not a theater at all, but rather a sort of miniature palace, probably intended for state receptions on such occasions as the Empress' birthday. The main part of the building contains a large rectangular hall, no doubt the site of the receptions proper, leading at either end to square rooms: one of them probably intended as an ante-chamber, the other as a place for courtiers to rest and recover following the exhausting rituals performed in the Empress' august presence.

With space for an audience of 120, the large rectangular hall will serve as the site of Chamber Orchestra Kremlin's festival concerts. A particularly noteworthy feature of the hall is its vaulted ceiling, which rises 17 meters to the very top of the building. In Bazhenov's time at least, that particular height was thought to have special acoustical properties and was frequently used in designing the cupolas of Russian churches.

Chamber Orchestra Kremlin opens the festival at Tsaritsyno next Tuesday with a program of short popular works from the ensemble's large repertoire for an invited audience of sponsors and benefactors. Invitations are still available in return for a contribution to the orchestra of $250 or more.

For the festival's remaining concerts, all of which are open to the general public, Rachlevsky has come up with four of his usual varied and imaginative programs, starting with an evening of works by Mozart, Britten, Rachmaninoff and Mendelssohn, all composed before their authors' 20th birthdays (Oct. 25, 7 p.m.), then moving on to music of the baroque period by Bach, Vivaldi and Albinoni (Oct. 27, 3 p.m.), to works written in the closing months of their lives by Bach, Schubert and Tchaikovsky (Oct. 30, 7 p.m.), and finally to a program featuring the Concerto for Double Bass by contemporary British composer John Mortimer, which Rachlevsky premiered eight years ago, as well as works by Rossini and Tchaikovsky (Nov. 3, 3 p.m).

Rachlevsky and the 18 young string players who make up Chamber Orchestra Kremlin have behind them a summer of tours to Switzerland, Spain and Hong Kong and will soon see the release of the ninth and 10th in their highly acclaimed series of compact discs recorded for the Swiss firm of Claves. One disc is devoted to the group's favorite encores, the other to arrangements by Rachlevsky of two string quartets of Tchaikovsky and of a part of the same composer's piano cycle known as "The Seasons."

In addition to its performances at Tsaritsyno, the orchestra is returning later this month to the Hotel Baltschug-Kempinsky to resume its series of "Musical Journeys," which was inaugurated last spring. Each "Journey" begins with a concert devoted to the music of a particular country and culminates in a dinner in the hotel's Le Romanoff restaurant featuring that same country's cuisine. Countries to be touched on during the remainder of 1996 are the Czech Republic (Oct. 26), Great Britain (Nov. 23) and Italy (Dec. 21).

Tickets for Chamber Orchestra Kremlin's concerts at Tsaritsyno are $15, and a subscription to all four public concerts costs $50. For general information, directions and how to get tickets to both the Tsaritsyno and Baltschug programs, call or fax 287-5274.