One of Russia’s greatest cultural exports — classical music — comes to the Liberty Theatre on Saturday, Jan. 13, when “Russian Gold III: A Russian ‘Old New Year’s Eve’” is presented by two more notable exports: cellist Sergey Antonov and pianist Ilya Kazantsev.
Timed to coincide with the informal celebration of the “Old” Russian New Year, which falls on Jan. 14 on the Julian calendar, the event serves two purposes: first, to showcase the works of some of the greatest Russian composers, and second, to offer an early taste of the 16th annual Astoria Music Festival.
The official start of the Festival is still several months away, but “we like to keep our irons in the fire,” as co-founder, conductor and artistic director Keith Clark put it. The recital is the first of several winter events to be presented under the AMF umbrella in the run-up to the Festival proper.
“It’ll be an opportunity to celebrate the New Year a second time,” Clark said.
The all-Russian program features two longer pieces — Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G minor for Piano and Cello, and Nikolai Myaskovsky’s Cello Sonata No. 2 in A minor — as well as several shorter works by Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky.
“It’s a very, very Russian program,” Antonov said. “When you think of Russian music, Rachmaninoff always pops up; it’s international, like we are. The ‘Sonata’ is an enormous joy to perform and to hear. And Myaskovsky’s work is almost folkloric, filled with the spirit of Russia. It’s Russian soul music.”
‘To Astorians with Love’
“Russian Gold III” marks the third joint appearance of Antonov and Kazantsev in Astoria.
“Sergey and Ilya are regular and longtime members of our creative team,” Clark said. “They’ve developed a very strong following on the coast. The ‘Gold’ part is that they have won Gold Medals in very prestigious competitions”: Antonov in the 2007 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, and Kazantsev at the Nikolai Rubinstein International Competition in Paris, among other accolades.
“It’s been one of those fortuitous things; this is about the only night they were available,” Clark said. “They’ll be coming in from New York on the day of the concert, and they’ll have to head right back out afterwards. They’re very busy artists, so we’re lucky to have them when we do.”
As performers and lifelong friends, Sergey and Ilya are deeply simpatico.
“We’ve known each other since the third grade — we were actually born three days apart in Moscow,” Antonov said. “But oddly enough, even though we went through music school at the same time, we never actually played together until after we both moved to the States. We bumped into each other in New York about ten years ago, and since then, we’ve worked together constantly.”
Though Antonov has plied his talents at venues ranging from the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory to the Newport Music Festival (where he made his American debut) to Suntory Hall in Tokyo, and continues to perform across the globe, he makes a point of returning to Astoria as often as he can.
“I never get tired of saying this over and over: Astoria is a special place for me,” Antonov said. “I admire the town and I love the people. I’ve been coming there for nine years now, twice a year at least, whether I’m performing or not, and it’s never enough. It’s a wonderful community.”
He has even shown his affection in musical form, compiling in 2016 a CD titled “To Astorians with Love.”
The feeling is mutual.
“Sergey’s in demand all over the world,” Clark said, “so he wouldn’t take the time to come to Astoria if he didn’t feel very welcome, very much at home.”
And why wouldn’t he be welcome? As Clark said, “Sergey’s a rock star of the cello.”