MOSCOW The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performs in Russia for the first time since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union on Wednesday, hoping to show Russian audiences a different side of American cultural with its rendition of Soviet composer Dmitry Shostakovich.
The performance is the highlight of this year's American Seasons festival in Russia -- a series of cultural exchanges led by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and the Russian Cultural Ministry to strengthen ties between the former Cold War foes.
"What we are doing under the rubric of American Seasons is exactly in the spirit with the President Obama's vision for the reset of relations with Russia," U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul told reporters.
Cultural representatives said the visit by the 121-year-old orchestra from the president's home city is an attempt to show a different side of the United States.
"We know American pop culture rather well in Russia, but we hardly know about its high culture," the Kremlin's envoy for international cultural cooperation, Mikhail Shvydkoy, said.
The orchestra will pick up exactly where it left off in 1990 - playing music by Shostakovich, one of Russia's most celebrated 20th century composers. It also incorporated more modern pieces by a Belarus-born composer Dmitry Smirnov and Italy's Nino Rota.
Conductor Riccardo Muti, 70, who led La Scala's orchestra for 19 years before joining the Chicago Symphony in 2010, said he handpicked music familiar to a Russian audience to showcase the orchestra's interpretation of the pieces.
Music, he said, was a chance to transcend politics.
"Music doesn't believe in strict nationalities," said Muti, who last conducted at the Bolshoi Theatre almost a decade ago. "It aims to bring people together."
Two decades ago, the orchestra gathered a crowd that was different from today's Muscovites, said Melanie Kupchynsky, a violinist with the orchestra since 1989.
"Last time we came here was when the first McDonalds opened in Russia. Back then, people didn't have much in their lives, they suffered food shortages, people were sneaking into our concerts, because for them music was survival," she said.
"Russia is a different country today. Now, I think people have more money to spare, and more of them will be able to come and enjoy," she said.
The 180-person orchestra will perform in Moscow on Wednesday and Thursday, and in St Petersburg on Saturday.
(Reporting By Nastassia Astrasheuskaya, editing by Paul Casciato)