July 13, 2009 / 5:36 PM / 10 years ago

Conductor exits left as Bolshoi Theatre's woes mount

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The music director of Moscow’s renowned Bolshoi Theater resigned suddenly on Monday, throwing the future of the institution’s grand $1 billion rebuild into chaos.

The Bolshoi orchestra's former chief conductor, Alexander Vedernikov, listens to a question during a news conference on a new production of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s opera “Yevgeny Onegin” in Moscow August 28, 2006. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Alexander Vedernikov, who had struggled for eight years to raise standards and inject new life into Russia’s best-known international music theater, announced his decision on the opening day of the Bolshoi’s summer tour of Italy.

“The theater is putting bureaucratic interests before artistic ones,” he told Reuters by telephone from La Scala, Milan. “But the interests of art matter far more than the interests of bureaucracy.”

Behind the drama of Vedernikov’s sudden exit, music experts say, lies a bitterly fought battle over the future of the Bolshoi, located near Red Square in the heart of the Russian capital.

The theatre’s doors closed in 2005 for a grand renovation. Engineers said subsidence threatened the collapse of its main walls and directors had long complained of the chronic lack of rehearsal space and scenery stores.

Intended to take just three years, the ambitious rebuild has so far taken four. The theatre’s once proud building is now an empty shell covered by hoarding and held together by metal beams. The interior is gutted.

Nobody expects work to finish before 2011 at the earliest, possibly later. The bill is mounting.

Worse still, Russia’s economic crisis is forcing cost-cutting on the project, sources close to the work say. Vedernikov fears that it will lead to fatal compromises on some of the most vital details, such as the theatre’s acoustics.

The architect who led the project to rebuild the theater was fired months ago amid recriminations over changes to the designs and Russian media have also reported that the main contractor on the job will be changed.

German experts Mueller-BBM, hired to repair the damage done to the legendary theatre’s acoustics by the construction of the Moscow Metro in the 1930s, have been told their contract is under review and that Russian consultants will be used in the meantime, according to a letter seen by Reuters.

“This Russian institute are the same people who were responsible for the acoustics of the Bolshoi’s temporary home, the New Stage,” Vedernikov said. “If they are made responsible for the Bolshoi itself, the results will be disastrous.

The Bolshoi Theatre’s chief spokeswoman Katerina Novikova was on tour in La Scala and could not be reached. A spokeswoman at the Bolshoi in Moscow said she was not authorized to speak about Vedernikov’s resignation, which she described as “unexpected.”

Russia’s news agency RIA-Novosti quoted the Bolshoi’s general director Anatoly Oksanov as playing down the departure of his music director and chief conductor of eight years.

“There is nothing unexpected in this for us,” RIA quoted him as saying. “Vedernikov already warned a year ago that he would leave the Bolshoi. As we can see, the time has come.”

Music critics, who fret about how the Bolshoi has lost its crown as Russia’s pre-eminent music theater to its main rival in St Petersburg, the Mariinsky, were saddened to learn of Vedernikov’s sudden exit.

“Vedernikov was part of the team who helped to rejuvenate the Bolshoi after it languished in the 1990s,” said George Loomis, who writes on music for the International Herald Tribune and the London-based Opera magazine.

“He’s achieved a higher standard of orchestral playing and has done good work there.”

For now, Vedernikov plans to complete the La Scala tour and then take a guest conductor assignment with an orchestra in Denmark and perhaps also in Norway.

The Bolshoi’s future is less clear.

Editing by Angus MacSwan

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