Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Russians Are Coming!

It happens to be an all-Russian concert this Thursday and Friday at the Tennessee Theatre, but the more important thing to know is that regardless of their country of origin, three really vital works are being played. The “Rose Adagio” from Tchaikovsky's score to the Sleeping Beauty ballet, Rachmaninov's “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," and Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade combine for a powerful musical experience, with an interesting twist.

Tchaikovsky only wrote music for three ballets, yet they are all beloved standards. His musical language is distinctly Russian, although he was clearly marching to a different drummer than his contemporaries, whom I will discuss below. Make an aural note of some of the harmonic progressions in the Adagio; you'll be hearing them again in Scheherezade. This ballet was premiered in 1890, a year before Tchaikovsky conducted the inaugural performance at Carnegie Hall.
There always seems to be a lot of hubbub about Rachmaninov's visit to Knoxville, but the truth is that he lived in the US from 1918 until the end, attaining citizenship in LA just days before his death in 1943. This quarter-century saw him compose only six works, among them the Symphonic Dances which opened our season in September, and this week's Rhapsody. Pianist Tanya Gabrielian brings a confident panache to this brilliantly conceived take on Paganini's already bodacious achievement.



Rimsky-Korsakov is the third Russian composer on these concerts to spend time in the US. I kid you not, young Nikolai was a Russian Navy cadet, and put to sea during our Civil War. Ports of call featured Washington, Baltimore and New York, including a junket to Niagara Falls. His decision to enlist was swayed by tales told by his older brother, a naval explorer and navigator 22 years his senior. This is when ships were made of wood and had sails, and there were few guarantees at sea. Rimsky still managed in his free time to write a Symphony, premiered in St. Petersburg in 1865 under the baton of Mily Balakirev. The success of this work led him to resign his naval commission and take his place among the “Mighty Handful” of Russian composers, along with Mussorgsky, Borodin, C├ęsar Cui and Balakirev. This fivesome was determined to blaze the path of the Russian classical tradition as established by Glinka. Of these five, Rimsky-Korsakov has proven to be the dominant force, having written both figuratively and literally an influential book on orchestration. Mussorgsky's opera Boris Gudonov as orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov's is a thing of beauty, don't pass up a chance to hear that.



With the composer's naval experience in mind, it's no surprise that the outer movements of Scheherezade have nautical titles. Even beyond that, the third movement is a barcarolle with a Sicilienne rhythm; the cello part even quotes “Blow the Man Down.” Every instrument on stage has a moment-- or several-- in the sun, particularly the Concertmaster. William Shaub is doing an amazing job with them. Get ready for time to stand still when there is just a violin and a harp playing, although the spine-tingling moments are many, regardless of who is playing. Rimsky-Korsakov achieves an exotic palette of orchestral colors and an impeccable sense of drama that will bring a smile to your face.

Performances are Thursday, Feb. 15 and Friday, Feb. 16 at 7:30 p.m. at the Tennessee Theatre (doors open at 6:15). Pre-concert chats with guest artist Tanya Gabrielian and Maestro Aram Demirjian begin at 6:30 p.m. Tickets available here or at the door.

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