Is there a natural, almost genetic bond between performers of a certain ethnic background or nationality and the music of composers with the same roots?
And when a musical ensemble approaches the work of a composer who is a countryman, landsman or has some other such visceral bond, does it result in an authenticity of performance that outsiders simply cannot match?
If the answer to those questions is yes, then the Buffalo Chamber Music Society should have ringing authenticity on its side during the opening concert in its 1997-98 season, at 8 p.m. Tuesday in Kleinhans' Mary Seaton Room.
Half of the answer is that opening the schedule of seven concerts for the Buffalo Chamber Music Society will be the St. Petersburg String Quartet, a group formed in 1985 when that famed Russian city was still known as Leningrad.
But the other half is revealed by scanning its program for Tuesday evening, which contains three works, all of them by Russian composers.
The program will conclude with Tchaikovsky's 1871 Quartet No. 1 in D Major. Back in the late 1930s Tin Pan Alley discovered that Tchaikovsky wrote a lot of great tunes. Pop composers began "borrowing" these melodies right and left for their own purposes, most of them candidly crediting Tchaikovsky. The practice became so widespread, however, that one wag even wrote a song called "Everybody's Making Money But Tchaikovsky."
Sure enough, Tchaikovsky's Quartet No. 1 was raided at that time. The main theme of its lovely slow movement (Andante cantabile) was adapted by no less a figure than Andre Kostelanetz, with words by Mack David, and turned loose on the American pop market as "On the Isle of May." Connie Boswell's Decca recording of this song was a best seller in 1940.
But great music survives this sort of thing, and even those of us who well remember "On the Isle of May" do not find it has cheapened the Tchaikovsky original when we hear it in concert.
Its first movement opens with chords whose rising and falling patterns caused someone to give the work the nickname "Accordion," not much used these days.
Overall, the quartet is a lyrical delight, with a colorful and outgoing Scherzo whose cello drone in the trio section may have added weight to the "Accordion" designation, and an exuberant, folk-flavored Finale balancing the opening movement and famous "Andante cantabile" extremely well.
The concert will open with the Quartet No. 12 by Shostakovich, in the unusual key of D-flat Major. Written in 1968, it is a work of substantial length, 25 to 27 minutes in most performances, but consisting of only two movements, an opening "Moderato" and concluding "Allegretto" lasting three times as long. Its general character is dark and bitter, tacitly expressive of the great grief the composer had suffered at the hands of Soviet authorities, but its stark gestures never fail to rivet the attention of most listeners. The composer himself described the work as symphonic in scale, content and instrumental quality.
And in the middle, the Russian guest artists will play the least well-known of the evening's three works, Alexander Glazunov's 1898 Quartet No. 5, like the Tchaikovsky Quartet, also in D Major.
Glazunov was a very prolific composer who worked with great facility and complete understanding of the implications of every musical move he made. Consequently, his music sounds very assured, polished and always falls very easily on the ear. In commenting on the Quartet No. 5, one writer hears in the first and fourth movements strong resonances of the composer's well-known Violin Concerto, while another observes that the music is so strong and clear that it seems impossible to play with a "wrong" interpretation.
The growth and recognition of the guest quartet has paralleled the great upheavals in Russian politics over the past decade. Established in 1985 as the String Quartet of the Leningrad Conservatory, the group's early successes in both competitions and Russian tours led it to apply to the Leningrad Administration of Culture to adopt the city name. From 1987 to 1991 it performed as the Leningrad String Quartet, changing once again to the St. Petersburg String Quartet at the same time the city reverted to its original name.
This is by no means the ensemble's first American tour. It has played at New York City's Mostly Mozart Festival, Arizona's Sedona Festival plus festivals in California, Colorado, Texas, New Jersey, Maine and other states, while becoming artists-in-residence at the Musicordia Festival and String Program in Massachusetts.
The usual glowing reviews have followed the St. Petersburgers throughout Europe and America. One by Lawrence Johnson in the New York Times of a recording of the Tchaikovsky Quartet No. 1 is of particular interest, inasmuch as it will conclude the Buffalo concert.
Of the famous "Andante cantabile" Johnson said, "To hear that much-abused music treated with the respect, insight and spiritual rapport shown by the St. Petersburg players is to grasp the internal drive, the emotional logic, of Tchaikovsky's compositional process."
Tuesday's concert by the St. Petersburg String Quartet in the Mary Seaton Room will be preceded at 7:15 p.m. with a talk about the music by John Landis, WNED-FM program host and conductor of the Cheektowaga Community Symphony Orchestra, and will be followed by a champagne reception in the Kleinhans Music Hall lobby.