In February 2009, I had the privilege of meeting Vladimir Matorin. When I first encountered the man I did not know that he is one of the greatest bass singers in Russia. At first, I knew him only as an interloper in my apartment building in Boston’s South End. In returning home on several occasions, I had noticed a towering bearded fellow, with a distinctly severe countenance, pacing the hallway near my door, and I wondered what he was doing there. He seemed slightly disheveled and somewhat disgruntled. My imagination jumped between possibilities: I did not know whether he might be a philosopher disturbed by some conflict of ideas, an artist torn by decisions to be made about his creative work, or perhaps a villain tormented by some plot gone wrong. In any case, his air of unrest seemed larger than life.
A few days after I noticed this wandering stranger, I got a call from my neighbor Linda, who worked for Opera Boston at the time. She asked me if I’d lend my digital piano to some musicians who were staying in the building. “Sure,” I said, and together we carried my keyboard a few doors over to another apartment. We get inside, and there’s the guy — the same towering figure I had seen in the hallway, then grim, now relaxed and smiling. Linda introduced him as Vladimir; and his wife, diminutive and genial, as Svetlana. The Matorins, it turned out, were visiting from Moscow so that Vladimir could perform in an upcoming production of The Nose by Dmitri Shostakovich, an opera based on a Gogol story. Linda had arranged for them to live in another neighbor’s vacant unit for a few weeks.
As soon as we got the piano set up, Svetlana thrust her hands toward it and began to play. Now equipped for practice, the Matorins smiled and made gestures of gratitude — first towards Linda, who then pointed to me as the donor of the piano. As the Matorins thanked me in broken English, I miscalculated in assuming I should show them how to adjust the digital tone of the piano, so I put it on the harpsichord setting. Quite fiercely they objected to the new sound:
“NO! NO! Very bad! Only grrrrand piana! Only grrrrrand piana!”
When I set the tone back to Grand Piano they smiled again and all was well. I left feeling glad that my keyboard, which had been idle for years, would be getting some use, but I still did not know much about the musicians who would be using it. So, I searched for more information about the Matorins, and learned about Vladimir’s illustrious career: he is soloist at the Bolshoi Theater, holds the title of National Artist of Russia, and has received a special approval from the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church to sing liturgical works. He is in all senses, the real deal.
When Svetlana invited me, a few days later, to join them in the apartment for dinner, I understood it was a very special opportunity. Svetlana served dish after dish, three or four wonderful salads (all with generous helpings of mayonnaise), a soup with Champignon mushrooms, and then an improvised delicacy combining salmon and eggplant. “Rud-di! Rud-di! You must eat more, more!” said Svetlana repeatedly. I looked at Vladimir and somewhat impulsively declared that I would eat more indeed, so I could become like him. It could have gone wrong, but my quip was well received. Throughout the evening Linda had been “translating” for me; that is, taking what I said and repeating it a little more slowly, still in English, to Svetlana, who didn’t speak much English. And so Linda passed it on to Svetlana, pantomiming as she spoke: “Rudi likes the food. He’d like to eat more and become like Vladimir.” There was laughter all around. “Rud-di! Rud-di! You must eat more, more, more! Like Vladimir!” Amidst the joking I also conveyed that I was looking forward to hearing Vladimir perform in The Nose (I’d secured tickets by this time), that I’m an opera lover, and that I enjoy listening to Russian sacred music.
When Svetlana heard the latter, she promptly brought out a DVD of a concert Vladimir had performed near Moscow, attended by the Holy Patriarch. Before I knew it I was sitting on a couch, beside Vladimir himself, watching this performance. On the old TV screen, there was Vladimir as the star soloist, backed by a large choir. The music began, and Vladimir’s powerful voice filled the hall, and the living room where we sat, seeming to transcend the capacity of the TV speaker, which I’m sure had never been asked to do such work before. As the piece progressed, Vladimir seemed to explore lower and lower depths of the bass register, his expression became more intense, his gaze more severe; his mouth opened wider, then wider again, and at one point there was so much energy collected in his subterranean roar that I felt something, somewhere must explode.
As the recorded Vladimir continued to render this musical liturgy, the live Vladimir, sitting beside me on the couch, admired what he heard, leaning back, crossing his arms, nodding, and saying in a low, low voice, “Ah, Matorin… Hmmm… Ahhhh!…. MATORIN…. MAAAA TOOO RINNNN!” I was so swept up in the music and the moment that I thought the same to myself (in a smaller voice), “Matorin! Matorin!”
Vladimir was kind enough to give me a CD. I can find no references to this recording online — unfortunate since this music really should be available for a wider audience — but here is the cover:
I don’t think Matorin is well represented in the few clips that are available right now on YouTube, but here is one that shows him singing liturgical music. The music starts at 1:50.
There is also an mp3 clip available from Ovation Management.
Opera Boston’s performance of The Nose was sensational, and I could go on about what a shame it is that this wonderful company is now defunct. Vladimir played the barber Ivan Yakovlevitch, who comes under suspicion for a very strange crime. Here is a synopsis of the opening scene (credits to the Met):
Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov gets a shave in Yakovlevich’s barbershop. The following morning, Yakovlevich, to his horror, finds a human nose in a freshly baked loaf of bread. Furious, his wife accuses him of having cut off the nose of one of his customers and orders him to dispose of it. Yakovlevich tries to get rid of the nose in the street but keeps running into acquaintances and becomes increasingly confused. When he finally manages to throw the nose into the Neva River, a police officer sees him and takes him in for questioning.
When I heard Vladimir perform on stage I thought back to the first few times I had seen him in the hallway, before I knew his identity. I wondered whether that troubled quality I had noticed in his countenance could have been a reflection of the character Yakovlevich he was then preparing to play. As he paced the hallway outside my door, had he been inhabiting Yakovlevich, perhaps feeling the confusion and torment of a man just accused of nasal thievery? And what did it say about me for feeling suspicion when I first noticed him there in the hallway — seeing him, if only for that fleeting moment before one can gain conscious control of the fear of the unfamiliar, and the stereotypical judgments such fear compels… seeing him for that split-second as an intruder, perhaps a thief?