Russian dreamtime and reality at the NCCO

02.23.09
Anne-Marie McDermott
San Francisco Examiner

I'm not 100% sure about this, but the very first piece of "classical" music I ever encountered may well have been Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite. My parents owned a Capitol Records recording of Nutcracker and Swan Lake, each on one side of an LP. In all likelihood they were transfers from earlier 78RPM albums.

Checking with ArkivMusic.com, I find to my amazement that the damn thing is still available as an ArkivCD reprint, although with a slightly more modernized cover, and the EMI Classics label on there as well as the old Capitol logo. The illustration of Swan Lake is the same as was on the original, thoug

I got to know a lot more Russian music early on; the Tchaikovsky first piano concerto, and the Rachmaninoff 2nd with Van Cliburn in Chicago with Reiner.

I didn't go to a live symphony concert until I was in my teens (too bad, that) so most of my musical life was spent via records.

I also remember a mixed-bag recording of Fritz Reiner and the Chicago performing various Russian pieces, including the Marche Slave, Colas Breugnon Overture, and the Russlan and Ludmilla Overture. (That one was on RCA Victrola, the budget label; nowadays the performances are easily obtainable on the RCA Living Stereo release of "Pictures at an Exhibition".)

As I got to know more and more Russian music, and began learning about Russia as a real place, I became increasingly aware of the disconnect between the Russia of my musical dreams and the reality. This was at the absolute blistering height of the cold war, remember -- I entered kindergarten near the end of the Eisenhower years.

The reality of Russia was a distinctly frightening thing called the USSR (not that I knew that the letters stood for), often seen on TV as the CCCP (that didn't make anything clearer for me.) It was a place that was in mostly black & white (television), characterized by lots of tanks and rigid soldiers, punctuated by very old women in scarves.

My Time-Life book on Russia offered some color pictures, typically with tanks, soldiers, and grannies, but also with lyrical shots of the Neva River in the winter or country churches with exotic onion domes that were sometimes striped almost like something you picked up at the Tastee-Freez.

Then David Lean's film of Doctor Zhivago came out and a friend and I sneaked in. I understood, oh, maybe, 10% of it. But there was that country house with the onion domes, the snow, the beautiful trees, and those incredible flowers in the spring. Those parts were much closer to my dream Russia.

Dreamtime Russia vs. the USSR; the mythical land of Tchaikovsky vs. the Shostakovitch Fifth. It was a long time before I realized that both the dreamtime and the brutal black & white USSR were fictions of my own imagination. Eventually I began meeting people from there and realized that it is a place with people, like anywhere else, a place with a history and good times and bad times and happiness and sadness and all that.

Music is one of those unifying threads throughout modern Russian history. Whether you're hearing Glinka or Glazunov or Glière, the Russianness shines through, even when the composer isn't really all that Russian (such as the Armenian Khachaturian.) That part of the world produces a particular musical character, forged out of who knows how many cultural influences, indigenous folk musics, religious traditions, and the like.

We have coming up in early March an all-Russian program from the New Century Chamber Orchestra, one of the Bay Area's musical jewels and one of my personal favorites among our local ensembles. The NCCO works as a true chamber group, without a conductor, although it is led by a music director, the acclaimed violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.

This season, the NCCO's programs have been eclectic, courageous, and compelling. This Russian program continues that tradition with a fascinating mix: an arrangement of a well-known group of pieces by Prokofiev, a Shostakovich piano concerto, and a double-dreamtime Tchaikovsky number blending Russia with Florence.

Anne-Marie McDermott, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg's longtime collaborator, joins the NCCO for both the Prokofiev and the Shostakovich.

Prokofiev wrote the Visions fugitives for solo piano; the performance will be in the transcription by Rudolf Barshai.

The Visions fugitives arose in 1917, the year in which Russia was transformed beyond recognition via the February and October Revolutions. Prokofiev was but a few years out of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he had sometimes horrified the fine gentlemen of the faculty with his jackhammer assaults on the piano.

However, the Visions -- a series of short character pieces written much in the tradition of Romantics such as Schumann or Scriabin -- spotlight Prokofiev's gift for engaging lyricism, an ability that he may have slighted during his early days but that he cultivated magnificently as he matured. The overriding feature of the Visions is change -- fleeting, unpredictable shifts of color, mood, and style.

The program also includes Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 1, an extraordinarily bright and energetic work spotlighting not only the piano soloist but a trumpet as well (although it isn't a double concerto by any means.) Early Shostakovich (1933) is often brash and exhilarating, without the depressed fatalism of his later works.

Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence is actually his String Sextet in D Minor, to be heard in an arrangement for string orchestra. The Russian dreamtime is alive and well in the folksong melodies of the final movements.

Anne-Marie McDermott has shared some thoughts on the program on the NCCO website. She notes the contrast between the sharp angularity of the Shostakovich concerto and the typical lyricism of the Visions fugitives: "They provide a perfect contrast to the Shostakovich Concerto which is extremely fiery and intense and flamboyant - it's a magical contrast!"