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The Russian Evolution

S. Rachmaninoff, P.Tchaikovsky, A. Arensky, D.Shostakovich, S.Taneyev,, Le Salon de Musiques January 8, 2017—

Despite its often dark past, the “Russian Bear” has blessed our eyes and ears with great beauty, from the architecture of St. Petersburg palaces, onion domes on Orthodox churches, painted religious icons and the contents of the Hermitage Museum to Faberge’s bejeweled Easter eggs and the enduring novels of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Pushkin. Following his 1837 death, it was Pushkin’s tales that provided inspiration for a century of artists who created perhaps his country’s greatest gift to the world–music. A partial list of notable composers who were born or writing in 19th century Russia includes Glinka, Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin, Stravinsky and Prokofiev.

The January 8th Le Salon de Musiques concert, the fourth in its current season, was entitled “Russian Legends”. It featured late-Romantic Era songs penned by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, two chamber pieces by the less well-known composers Arensky and Taneyev and a sparkling work by a seventeen-year old student named Shostakovich. We were seated in a different location than at previous concerts: the Founder’s Room in the Los Angeles Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, under a full-length portrait of Mrs. Chandler. This sumptuous cocoon of thick drapes, 25′ wood-paneled walls and deep carpets was the ideal acoustic sanctum to hear Francois Chouchan, Le Salon’s Artistic Director, at the Steinway grand piano as he accompanied a vocalist in the half-dozen Russian songs that began the concert.

Summer Hassan, a powerful soprano of Egyptian-American heritage, is a member of the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist program at LA Opera. After earning her Bachelor of Fine Arts in music at the Oberlin Conservatory, Hassan made her Carnegie Hall debut in Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes”. She has performed in “Magic Flute” and “La Boheme” and, with the Colburn Orchestra, sang “The Four Last Songs” by Strauss. She was recently lauded for her part in “Akhnaten”, LA Opera’s spectacular production of the Philip Glass opera. Her program at Le Salon featured three songs apiece by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.

Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote 103 songs, many of them obscure today. He incorporated Russian church hymns, Ukrainian folk tales, European street music and Gypsy tunes into his songs. Hassan–a small woman with a big voice– sang “Legend”, “Lullaby in a Storm” and “Autumn”, written in 1890-93, near the end of Tchaikovsky’s life. She performed them with a bittersweet clarity suggested by their melancholy titles. She seemed at ease, as well as convincing, with Russian pronunciations and lyric diction and was ably, delicately assisted by Chouchan at the piano.

Two of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s songs, “Oh, Never Sing to Me Again” and “The Harvest of Sorrow” (the latter from a poem by Tolstoy), were written when the composer was 20 years old, in 1893, the year of Tchaikovsky’s death. Both men have an essence of elegy and nostalgia in their songs; it’s as if the soprano and piano are delivering private, personal messages to us. Hassan gave full voice to Rachmaninoff’s melodious if mournful tunes; echoes of Borodin were definitely apparent in the piano part. Only the third Rachmaninoff piece seemed a bit ill-suited for Hassan. “Vocalise” (1915) is an organic, hypnotic “song without words”, a rare composition of its kind that is still a popular favorite. Someone described the voice needed for this reverie-minus-text as “sustained, almost violin-like”. I felt that Hassan’s considerable vibrato and tendency to “give it her all” when singing overpowered the subtlety of “Vocalise”. Otherwise, high marks.        

Russian composers began to feel Western music’s strong influence by the late 1700’s. The royal and wealthy classes would return home after “The Grand Tour” under the spell of French and Italian opera, exotic Greek, Persian and “oriental” sounds and especially the German lieder of Schubert, Schumann and Beethoven. The resulting explosion of creativity, from around 1830 to 1930, would witness the Russian evolution of music

Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano, Le Salon’s resident musicologist and mistress of ceremonies, presents background facts about composers and their work in her brief, amusing pre-concert chats. Her “Russian Legends” comments illustrated the unusually close bonds shared by the five composers whose music we were hearing, their teacher/student relationships and the two famous conservatories–in St. Petersburg and Moscow–that taught or employed all of them.

The lives of all 19th century Russian composers seem intertwined: Glinka, the idol of Balakirev, organized music schools in St. Petersburg; Balakirev’s friend Borodin brought Mussorgsky into the circle and when Borodin died, some of his work was completed by Rimsky-Korsakov, who joined the St. Petersburg Conservatory staff in 1871; Tchaikovsky studied there earlier but soon moved to the new Moscow Conservatory; his student and friend Taneyev, who taught Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, later took Tchaikovsky’s place on the staff that included Arensky; back in St. Petersburg, Glazunov, whose professors were Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov, would go on to teach Shostakovich. And that’s just a brief outline of the musical connections.

Three of these composers’ chamber works made up the rest of Le Salon’s longer-than-usual concert. First up was Anton Arensky’s String Quartet # 2 in A Minor, Op. 35 (1894). The musicians, some of them Le Salon semi-regulars and all of them gifted, honored professionals, gave a first-rate performance. Violinists Jessica Guideri and Jason Issokson were focused and energetic; they were given solid support by violist Jonathan Moerschel and cellist Jacob Braun. Arensky gives each instrument a distinct voicing, especially in the first movement, which only added complexity to the quartet’s polished unison playing.

The second movement (“Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky”) owed its origin to the song “Legend”, heard earlier. The spirited, lovely music made one hope that greater attention could be paid to Arensky, whether his chamber works or beautiful piano pieces. There was a neo-classical, fugue-like feel to the final movement, with a trace of orthodox chant that reinforced the overall sense of memorial to Tchaikovsky.

Although performed last at the concert, Sergei Taneyev’s Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op 30, (1910-11), was more related to the Arensky piece, composed fifteen years earlier. Another somewhat forgotten figure, Taneyev was a skilled performer who premiered most of Tchaikovsky’s compositions for piano and orchestra. If perhaps less gifted with melody and imagination than others, his evident skill with counterpoint led Bown-Montesano to call Taneyev “the Russian Bach”.

Award-winning pianist Vijay Venkatesh was an excellent addition to the quartet we heard earlier. (This California native continues the Russian evolution of music; at age 11, Venkatesh began studying with Leonid Levitsky, a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory.) Taneyev’s first movement was audible proof that he had taught Rachmaninoff and the second was reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto.   The blended, harmonious string work was beautiful. The Largo third movement opened with dramatic, dirge-like bowing on the cello, joined by violins and viola in counterpoint, interspersed with pretty piano passages. The finale was a triumphant, swirling “big finish”, hopeful and orchestral in nature, and the five musicians were rewarded with rousing applause and a standing ovation.

The most surprising and modern work of the day was the Piano Trio # 1 in C Minor, Op. 8 (1923) by Dmitri Shostakovich. He was infatuated with a young woman named Tatyana Glivenko and wrote this precocious composition for her. Originally titled “Poeme”, the one-movement composition for piano, violin and cello was smartly played in a brisk 13 minutes. For a student under twenty, Shostakovich was already advanced and sophisticated. The Russian heritage is clear but in a more contemporary vein; you can hear the obvious influence of Prokofiev. Yet even in this very early piece, the later, darker Shostakovich motifs are evident. His next work, the Symphony # 1, would make him an international star. But the oppressive Soviet regime would hover over Shostakovich for the next fifty years, denouncing many of his greatest works. How refreshing to hear his Piano Trio, so full of life and youthful promise.

Le Salon de Musiques presented an informative mini-history of Russian music, performed by exceptional musicians. But instead of the tea, sweets and finger sandwiches served after every concert, this was one event that called for caviar and ice cold vodka.

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