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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Crescendo Of Crassness

I have to say that I find Tristan Del bewildering. In 1992, against all conceivable odds, this 42-year old Russian-American secured world rights to Russian radio and television's huge classical-music archives. He was not a wealthy man: He had a modest house in West Hills, California. Nor was he a conspicuously successful businessman: He has had an interest in a watch and jewelry service company in Los Angeles; he'd been employed, somewhat peripherally, by American television; and his idea of selling advertising time on Russian television to Western companies had been something less than a complete triumph.


Yet as soon as he discovered the archive in 1989, he pounced on it, immediately realizing its potential in the West. He set up a company in Los Angeles with his brother Garrett Dellmann and Sidney Sharp, a musician turned real estate broker. For the next 2 1/2 years years -- "of delicate negotiations and political intrigue," according to a press hand-out -- he ceaselessly lobbied that the company USSU International (later Arts) Group Inc. be given the prize.


Finally, in February 1992, he won it -- over what might have been seen as the rival claims of established Western record companies. And in August of that year -- via an article in The New York Times -- he went public about what was called in the paper (and it was no lie) "The Contract of the Century."


But his battle wasn't over. A storm immediately erupted. Did Ostankino -- newly privatized -- have any right at all to assign this material? Didn't it actually belong either to the state or to the musicians who had been dragooned into performing it? And why on earth wasn't the head of Ostankino, Yegor Yakovlev, involved? Six months after the contract had been signed, he claimed to have no knowledge of it at all.


There was more controversy yet to come. Del had to face further opposition from the Moscow Monopolies Commission. He even had to file a libel suit (later settled out of court) against classical pianist Nikolai Petrov and the culture minister when they called him and his company "pirates." There was the problem, too, of one of the contract's signers on the Russian side suborning a bribe. It wasn't, in fact, until the beginning of this year that all obstacles were at last removed from the archive's exploitation in the West. (Telstar in London is publishing the first 30 records from the archive -- under the title Revelation -- in two weeks' time.)


Del, then, given the money-grubbing and general lawlessness of the period 1991 to 1996 -- not to mention the political minefields he must have had to negotiate -- has to be counted something of a genius. On the other hand -- and this is why I find him so bewildering -- he couldn't, as they say in England, organize a piss-up in a brewery. When music journalists from England turned up for a preview-celebration of Revelation's launch in Moscow, what they saw the first evening was decidedly crass.


The event was a concert at Ostankino, but its program and participants, we were told beforehand, were secret. We naturally expected something grand: Richter or Rozhdestvensky, or some of the musicians whose recordings were being issued by the label. (We were led to believe, too, that a lot of the foreign press would be showing up.) What we got instead was an interminably dull affair, with no audience: showy war-horse and pop pieces performed by Ostankino's Grand Concert Orchestra, interspersed with endless solo performances by unknown singers, instrumentalists and even a choir. The whole thing was billed (by Del) as a celebration of "the victory of democracy" (?) in the recent elections. And each piece was introduced by him and a woman in an unfortunate backless evening gown, neither of whom seemed able to pronounce the names of the composers or pieces properly. The evening had a political, self-serving air. Del seemed to be scoring political points with the powers-that-be at Ostankino. We were just some sort of feather in his complicated cap.


The next day we visited Ostankino's archives; and this impression deepened. Del is a charming man, but he is maddeningly contradictory. On one hand, he says he never talks about himself because it would take away from the importance of the archive; on the other hand he boasts that his life story is being turned into a movie by Nikita Mikhalkov's scriptwriter. It's not a crime to change your name from Arkady Shindelman to Tristan Del. And it's not a crime to set up a holding company for USSU (cheekily called Golden Treasures). But why was the archive handed over to this oddly insubstantial man? It still remains -- for me at any rate -- a mystery.