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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sax Terror and Assorted Alternativa

Tired of the superb but sometimes standard conservatory fare? Weary of Mozart, Brahms, Mahler? The alternative? "Alternativa-96."

Presented for the ninth year, "Alternativa-96" is Moscow's international festival for 20th-century music. It combines the best in accepted 20th-century masterpieces -- it has featured works by John Cage and Dmitry Shostakovich -- with new music in many other genres and styles.

In its initial 1988 incarnation, the festival offered an alternative to music approved by the Soviet establishment. Artistic director and festival coordinator Dmitry Ukhov said, "The original idea was to eliminate the white spots [ignorance] about the Soviet semi-dissidents -- Schnitke, Denisov, Gubaydulina -- and the Western avant-garde, which was considered capitalist propaganda."

The festival has evolved over the years with the changes in Russia's political climate. Ukhov said, "As ideological repressions waned and there was nothing to resist, the alternative to the establishment and conservatories became what is called 'downtown' and American minimalism, [moving] in that direction: Tom Johnson, Philip Glass, Steve Reich."

In this year's festival, which runs through May 12, the 19 concerts on the schedule include not just the genres of "downtown" and minimalism, but also post-modernism, post-serial, improvisational, avant garde jazz -- even rock. Blues and soul, though by no means shunned as styles acceptable for the festival, are not represented this year "because it just worked out that way," said Ukhov.

The festival offers an alternative not just to audiences but to performers as well. In 1995, members of the Association of Laureates of the International Tchaikovsky Competition got into the act. One of its members, Anton Batagov, was originally trained at the Moscow Conservatory as a classical pianist, but he performed his minimalist compositions in a concert Monday. In a concert May 11, Vladimir Ratskevich, a pioneering Soviet rock musician, will appear at the House of Composers in a concert of serious chamber improvisation.

Tatyana Grindenko, director of the Academy of Ancient Music ensemble, normally appears in concerts of works by Bach, Vivaldi, Purcell, Handel. But in the festival's concluding concert, she will join Dmitry Pokrovsky's vocal ensemble in premiering a work by Vladimir Martynov (who happens to be her husband), a Russian minimalist composer described by Ukhov as "our Steve Reich."

The festival this year has attracted performers from most European countries -- including Germany, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland -- as well as from faraway Japan, Ecuador and Argentina. The involvement of the Swedish contingent is particularly strong this year. Perhaps the most audible of these musicians is Dror Feiler, described in press releases as a "saxophonist-terrorist."

Ukhov is quick to explain: "He's only a terrorist in the aesthetic sense. [His] music is indeed intellectual terror." A composer as well as performer, Feiler leads the avant-garde group Lokomotiv Konkret. "[The musicians in] Lokomotiv Konkret are experts in making noise," said Magnus Dahnberg, first secretary of the Swedish Embassy who works with its cultural section. He did, though, add a qualifier, saying Feiler's "concerts can be everything from extremely noisy to delicate."

For those whose noise tolerance is minimal and whose tastes run to the less experimental, an evening of Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues might best sate the craving for 20th-century music. Janos Solyom, a Hungarian-born Swede, will perform the cycle over two evenings Wednesday and Thursday at the Conservatory's Small Hall.

Putting on a festival of this magnitude required input and sponsorship of both private and state sources. Sweden's airline, SAS, and Mannheimer Swartling, a lawyers' group, have assisted with costs that include rental of the Conservatory's Small Hall. Radio Orpheus, Russia's only radio station devoted exclusively to broadcasting serious music of all periods, is providing, gratis, studio space, air time and advertising.

Though many of the concerts will be recorded or broadcast on the radio, Orpheus' director Olga Gromova urged listeners to attend the concerts as well: "Not everything that the festival does can be heard; some of it has to be seen."

To receive a faxed schedule of festival performances, call 290-0688 or fax 956-4740.