Patricia Contino, Author
One of the best things about the arts is following an artist’s journey. I first heard Dmitri (“Dima”) Hvorostovsky sing at in person at a 1995 New York Philharmonic concert conducted by Valery Gergiev. They performed Mussorgsky’s “Songs of Dances and Death”, which they recorded the previous year. I was already familiar with the baritone’s persuasively smooth voice – the combination of his 1989 victory at the first Cardiff Singer of the World competition along with his silver hair and black eyes certified a regular spot on WQXR’s playlist – but the song cycle was still a listening discovery. So, I went twice: sitting in the Third Tier that Friday, then splurging on an Orchestra seat the next night. He sounded and, yes, looked great. I commemorated the concerts by pasting the tickets on the endpapers of a battered copy of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “My Musical Life”. My reading choice that March weekend coincided with the program’s second half, Rimsky’s “Antar” Symphony. I don’t’ know why Gergiev never recorded it. When the NYP played that primary-colored score of marches and slow dance rhythms, they were the greatest orchestra in the world.
I thought back to those NYP concerts when I heard of Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s death from brain cancer on November 22nd, not only because of sad irony but the strong, happy memory created. This does not detract from the loss of a favorite singer. Statements by colleagues confirmed what admirers already knew – that the Siberian baritone was a generous, devoted professional and family man.
Baritone and bass voices naturally deepen and darken with age. The cruelness of Hvorostovsky’s illness was that he was beginning to explore Iago in Verdi’s penultimate “Otello” – the best baritone role in Italian opera. It should have been a natural career progression, not a “if only…” Yet very much like Senator John McCain who shares the same diagnosis, Hvorostovsky redefined himself in the two-and-a-half years he fought cancer. He sang between treatments, most memorably at the Met in September 2015 in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” with Anna Netrebko (who made her 2002 Met debut as Natasha to his Prince Andrei in Prokofiev’s “War and Peace”) and May of this year at a Gala commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Met’s move to Lincoln Center. The latter was a surprise. The video released by the Met revealed that in spite of the stilted walk from radiation, he sounded amazing. A few days following Hvorostovsky’s death, the Met announced the December DVD release of the entire Gala concert.
It is difficult describing a familiar voice. Rather than stumble through metaphors, Hvorostovsky leaves an impressive discography that defines his career. During a time when full-length opera recordings are rare, he nevertheless recorded three of his best roles: the title characters of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” and “Rigoletto” and Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”. There are recital discs of Russian songs and liturgical music; no wonder there were so many people of different ages offering condolences at his funeral at Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Hall. Then, there are the piano and orchestral versions of Georgy Sviridov’s song cycle “Russia Cast Adrift”, written for him. None of the three tenors holds that musical distinction.
The Florence and Dmitri Hvorostovsky Journal is one place on Facebook where Russians and Americans aren’t suspicious of each other. Set up by the singer and his wife, it is a where fans of all nationalities share photos, good wishes for weekends and/or holidays, and now grief. Once, someone asked about “Dima’s” Met debut as Prince Yeletsky in Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades” in November 1995 – a few months after those NYP concerts. I wrote about attending, remembering how the audience went wild after his sole aria, a futile appeal to Karita Mattila’s Lisa who doesn’t love him. The final stage picture didn’t linger on Ben Heppner’s Gherman lying dead or Leonie Rysanek taking the Countess’ and her final exit of a legendary career – but on Hvorostovsky’s Prince. One poster called me “dear”; another thanked me for sharing “happy memories.”
I would have liked more, but grateful for those I have.
© Copyright 2017 by Jeff Myhre, PhD, Editor. No part of this publication may be reproduced without written consent. Produced using Ubuntu Linux.