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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Diva Wins $25,000 Prize

Among Moscow's musical curiosities, none is perhaps more curious than the annual Shostakovich Prize, first awarded in 1994 and this year given to the world-renowned mezzo soprano from St. Petersburg, Olga Borodina, at a ceremony a nd concert last Monday in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

Though named in honor of Dmitry Shostakovich, the prize has little apparent connection either with the great composer himself or with his music. A more appropriate name might be the Bashmet Prize, for it is the noted violist Yury Bashmet who dominates its every aspect.

The sponsor of the prize is the Yury Bashmet International Charitable Foundation. Recipients are said to be chosen by a "panel of experts," though the members remain anonymous except for Bashmet himself. Somehow, the panel consistently manages to pick one of the violist's close friends. The rather generous prize money, $25,000, comes from unnamed sources.

While Shostakovich's chosen instrument was the piano, the odd little statuette handed out to prize-winners depicts a disembodied pair of arms holding what looks suspiciously like a viola. And the award ceremony itself is very much the Yury Bashmet Show, with the violist himself at least as much the center of attention as the recipient of the prize.

Still, who cares what the prize is called or what its origins and attributes, if it gives Moscow a chance to hear music-making by the likes of violinists Gidon Kremer and Anne-Sophie Mutter and conductor Valery Gergiev, as it has in the past, or by the marvelous Borodina, as it did this week.

"Olga is the world's absolute champion mezzo soprano," said Bashmet prior to Monday's event. "She sings with Pavarotti and Domingo. In St. Petersburg, of course, they adore her. But in Moscow she is practically unknown. Believe me, Moscow is going to be witness to one of the most fascinating voices to be heard singing today."

In her part of Monday's musical program, Borodina easily fulfilled Bashmet's expectations. Accompanied at the piano by Dmitry Yefimov, she turned first to songs of Spanish origin as reworked by Shostakovich, then to a pair of authentic Spanish songs by Manuel de Falla and excerpts from two of her most acclaimed operatic roles, Carmen and Delila, as well as an aria from Francesco Cilea's "Adriana Lecouvreur," an opera in which she drew rave reviews earlier this month at the La Scala theater in Milan. Concluding the evening, she returned to Delila, in the famous "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix," accompanied by Bashmet and his Moscow Soloists in a rather weird new arrangement for chamber orchestra.

While Borodina continues to draw lucrative offers from abroad, she keeps close ties with the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. "I can't offer any rational explanation," she said in a recent interview. "Yes, I often have more opportunities abroad to sing what I want, but I am a very Russian person. This country is a very spiritual place... Only here can I get this special spiritual energy."

Borodina's voice is a gorgeous instrument, utterly smooth from top to bottom and without a hint of strain under pressure, reminding one of another great Russian mezzo of an earlier generation, Irina Arkhipova, who was herself to be seen on Monday listening intently from a box at the side of the stage.