Australian Chamber Orchestra violinist Ilya Isakovich. Photo: Global Sanctuary
'Why do you always wear black?'' the character Masha is asked in Chekhov's play The Seagull. ''Because I am unhappy,'' she replies. ''I am in mourning for my life.''
It's a familiar refrain. Whether we're talking about writers such as Dostoyevsky or musicians such as Schnittke and Shostakovich, Russian culture is all too often stereotyped as brooding and melancholy. Of course, it's an oversimplification. For example, music is capable of expressing many varied emotions, Shostakovich once wrote, ''… dark dramatism and pure rapture, suffering and ecstasy, fiery and cold fury, melancholy and wild merriment''.
That range of emotions is explored in the concert Russian Visions, to be performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra in Llewellyn Hall on November 10. The program, which comprises works by Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, features guest artist Scottish pianist Steven Osborne.
But the so-called Russian style may also be a case of seriousness of purpose as much as melancholy, according to Ukranian-born violinist Ilya Isakovich, who is now a member of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. ''During the Soviet era, the whole music structure was never built for individual pleasure or development,'' he says. ''It was always about success.''
Isakovich studied for several years within the Soviet music system. Although he moved to Israel with his parents, several months before the Soviet Union ended in late 1991, he recalls just how rigorous music education was there at the time. As with sport, music education was a tool to demonstrate to the West the success of the Soviet regime, he says, and composers were expected to write music to best reflect this regime.
Prokofiev was one composer whose creativity was stifled by these strictures. The concert opens with his Visions Fugitives, which were first performed by Prokofiev in 1918, less than a year after the Russian revolution. The work comprises 20 miniatures for piano, with string arrangements by Soviet conductor Rudolf Barshai.
Although unmistakably modernist in its dissonant harmonies, these 20 pieces also hint at a French Impressionist idiom, Isakovich says. ''My first feeling on hearing them was that they reminded me of Debussy. And the string arrangements, whether for solo orchestra or orchestra and piano, add another dimension.
''They're just a series of musical ideas which are not developed further. But within these 20 pieces are a whole range of human feelings and emotions.''
The two works that follow in the concert, by Dmitri Shostakovich, are more pessimistic. The first, the Concerto No. 1 in C minor for piano, trumpet and strings, might seem positive in parts but this is misleading, Isakovich says. ''It was written to seem cheerful. Like Prokofiev, Shostakovich was under close attention from the Soviet machine. He couldn't write a single note without it being scrutinised for political correctness.'' But the trumpet parts seem almost to mock or parody the seriousness of the strings, he says. ''In most of Shostakovich's music, what may seem happy is actually satiric and hints at another level of emotion.''
The second work by Shostakovich, his Two Pieces for String Octet, is another profoundly sad piece, written after the loss of a friend. ''The two movements - the Prelude and the Scherzo - convey a range of emotions but for me are mostly an outcry of sadness and tragedy,'' Isakovich says. ''The slow movement is very poignant and depressing and the fast movement has huge dissonances which seem like a scream of the soul.''
Concluding the concert - and the Australian Chamber Orchestra's 2012 season - in a more positive frame of mind is Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence.
The work began life as a theme Tchaikovsky wrote while visiting the Tuscan capital in 1890, Isakovich says, a period that was one of the most musically productive of his life. ''Part of the work is supposed to be his impression of Italian music. But the four movements are really full-blooded Russian music, especially the second movement [Adagio] which reminds us of his most famous ballets Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.''
''Tchaikovsky's music is full of melancholy, passion and a sense of loss but this is a result of his personality and sexuality. He is sincere, sad and happy at the same time. His music is both from the heart and for the heart.''
And it's a sentiment that applies to Russian/Soviet music of the century that followed. Those moments of melancholy - whether the result of existential despair or totalitarian oppression - don't tell the full story.
■ The Australian Chamber Orchestra performs Russian Visions in Llewellyn Hall, Australian National University School of Music on November 10 at 8pm. Tickets: Adult A Reserve $99, B Reserve $79, C Reserve $49; Concession A Reserve $86, B Reserve $69, C Reserve $42; Under 30 all tickets $45. Bookings: 1800 444 444 or firstname.lastname@example.org. A pre-concert talk in Llewellyn Hall at 7pm is free for all concert ticket holders.
■ In Brisbane the orchestra performs Russian Visions at QPAC Concert Hall on November 19, 8pm. Tickets $45.70 to $92.70 from qtix.com.au or by calling 136 246.
■ In Sydney the orchestra performs Russian Visions at City Recital Hall on November 17 at 7pm, November 20 at 8pm and November 21 at 7pm and at Sydney Opera House on November 25 at 2pm. Tickets $39-$99 from cityrecitalhall.com and 02 8256 2222 or sydneyoperahouse.com and 02 9570 7777.
■ In Melbourne the orchestra performs Russian Visions at Hamer Hall, The Arts Centre, on November 11 at 2.30pm and November 12 at 8pm. Tickets $20-$90 from artscentremelbourne.com.au or 1300 182 183.