Jeremy Yudkin | Performances Not to Miss: The Russian (Composers) Are Coming!'
This is the fifth in a weekly series of columns devoted to a brief look ahead at the weekend's principal Tanglewood concerts.
Most Americans first got to know Russian music through two selections in the classic film Fantasia: Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" (a gigantic night devil on a mountain raises monsters, demons, and witches from the dead and makes them dance around a fiery volcano) and Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" (the beginnings of the Earth, from its formation to the end of the reign of the dinosaurs). But many heard (either live or on recordings) the Russian composer and pianist Rachmaninoff, who spent the latter part of his life in the United States, having fled the country after the Russian Revolution. Rachmaninoff lived in New York City, touring the country as pianist and conductor and only occasionally composing (the American-born works include the justly popular "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" and his Third Symphony).
Friday's program at Tanglewood will be all-Russian. The program will begin with Glinka's overture to "Ruslan and Ludmila," the second opera of a composer from the first half of the 19th century who was responsible for laying the groundwork for the rise of the Russian nationalist style in the second half. The opera is a mixed-up affair, but the overture is attractive and musically intriguing, with its juxtaposition of Russian folk music with a descending whole-tone scale (all you have to do to hear what a whole-tone scale sounds like is listen to Thelonious Monk's descending piano runs).
Then comes the pulsingly romantic Second Piano Concerto of Rachmaninoff, whose opening theme may be the longest ever written (though who would want it a note shorter?). The lovely second movement of the concerto was used as the basis (to put it politely) of the Eric Carmen 1975 hit "All by Myself." But wait: the influences don't end there. The second theme of the last movement was "borrowed" for Frank Sinatra's "Full Moon and Empty Arms." Gorgeous melodies and melting harmonies are not that easy to come by. It was the eccentric Englishman Charles Colton who coined the phrase "Imitation is the sincerest of flattery."
The spectacular "Firebird Suite" of Stravinsky (1910) makes up the second half of the program. This was the first of the composer's collaborations with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Paris. ("Petrushka" and "The Rite of Spring" followed close on its heels.) "Firebird" is a dazzling piece for a very big orchestra. It made Stravinsky famous overnight.
On Saturday, the Bernstein celebration continues with his "Songfest" (1977), a series of musical settings of American poems for various combinations of singers with orchestra. The poets range from the 19th-century's Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman to Modernist Gertrude Stein to Beat Poets Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The second half of the program is made up of the Second Symphony of Sibelius. Deeply expressive and original, the work was described by the composer as "a confession of the soul." The acerbic composer and critic Virgil Thomson, however, called it "vulgar and self-indulgent." You'll have to decide.
Two more Russians are on the program for Sunday: Borodin and Prokofiev. Borodin's "Polovtsian Dances" come from his opera "Prince Igor," and they form a real showpiece for orchestra. People will recognize the music but perhaps not know why. (Think "Kismet" and in particular the song "Stranger in Paradise.") Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony is on the second half of the program. After returning from Europe to live in the Soviet Union in 1936, Prokofiev became one of the most celebrated of Soviet composers, with his delightful "Peter and the Wolf," the attractive little "Classical Symphony," and his "Romeo and Juliet" ballet. The Fifth Symphony was composed at the high-point of Prokofiev's popularity. It is melodious and optimistic. In between these works we shall hear the Polish composer Henryk Wieniawski's dazzling and romantic Second Violin Concerto from 1862. Its pyrotechnics showcase the soloist, but the thoughtful first movement, lyrical and flowing second, and gypsy-fiddling third are a testament not so much to the performer as to the superb creativity of the composer.
Jeremy Yudkin is Professor of Music at Boston University. He gives Pre-Concert Talks for Tanglewood on Fridays at 2:30 p.m. and Sundays at 11 a.m. at the Lenox Library. See summermusicseminars.org.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.