Friday, May 19, 2006 | It’s been a big year for the arts of Russia. In New York, the Guggenheim Museum mounted an exhibit of 275 Russian masterworks from the middle ages through the early 20th century’s avant garde to socialist realism right to today’s experimenters. Many music organizations have been marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Russia’s titanic and complex modern genius, Dmitri Shostakovich.
The San Diego Symphony will close its Jacobs Masterworks series this weekend with its own salute to Russia., a blockbuster program at Copley Symphony Hall and the California Center for the Arts. Soviet-born Yefim Bronfman, now a U.S. citizen, will be the soloist for Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto: Rach 3, as musicians call this ferociously difficult piece.
The program presents the composers’ works in reverse chronological order, from Alfred Schnittke to Sergei Rachmaninoff to Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who died respectively in 1998, 1943 and 1893.
Perhaps we like to think that as we move forward in time, we can detect connections descending among the artists and their works, as the art form progresses toward increased sophistication and complexity. Indeed in the Guggenheim’s “Russia!” show, the director of the museum said that he wanted to show the link between the deeply religious icon painting of the Middle Ages and the purely abstract works of the 20th century’s Kasimir Malevich.
Still, as we listen to the modern work first, our ears are tuned in reverse, and we have to listen more carefully for the connection, which Jahja Ling, the orchestra’s music director, identifies. “It is the Russian soul, which has a hint of melancholy but is very passionate and songful,” he said in an email interview from western Germany where he was conducting the Bochum Symphoniker.
The “Russian soul” is a somewhat overworked image, yet the melancholy, passion and songfulness have multiple roots, including personal suffering, nostalgia, religious fervor, love, and for so many artists, political anguish during centuries of totalitarianism from Ivan the Terrible to Stalin; even today, the effects of that history linger.
Each of the composers on this weekend’s program expresses his individual and the national souls differently. Schnittke missed the excesses of Stalin’s Russia and was spared persecution and even prison that creators like Shostakovich and Solzhenitsyn experienced. He was born in Russia into a German-Russian-Jewish-Catholic family, speaking German first and living at least part of his young life in Vienna. Training and working at the Moscow Conservatory, Schnittke wrote dozens of movie scores through the 1980s. As a “serious” composer, he pursued “polystylism,” a fancy and superficial word that means he worked in several styles, interested in the past as well as the avant garde. Still, beginning in 1985, at the age of 54, he had a number of strokes, and his health was always frail – his personal suffering.
Nonetheless, he produced nine symphonies and numerous string quartets, striking out into numerous musical directions, not always successfully. In 1994, half the audience walked out of the New York premiere of his Sixth Symphony before the performance was over. Still, the cutting-edge Kronos Quartet recorded his complete string quartets in the year of his death, a testament to their dedication to his music.
The Schnittke work on this weekend’s program shows the composer’s sense of humor. “(K)ein Sommernachtstraum” (“Not a Midsummer’s Night Dream”) is a play on an audience favorite, Mendelssohn’s music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Next in this weekend’s back-to-musical-future is Rachmaninoff. Despite a couple of initial setbacks, Rachmaninoff achieved success as a composer, and he was considered one of the world’s greatest performers on the concert circuit.
He contracted a permanent dose of the Russian disease, melancholy, when he and his family left Russia after the fall of the Tsarist state in 1917. Sunny southern California became the family’s base after 1936, but the loss of his homeland affected him deeply, and his output fell dramatically. After Rachmaninoff’s death in Beverly Hills in 1943, some critics dismissed his music as “monotonous,” “gushing” and “not likely to last.”
His reputation has found new strength in recent decades, however, and the Third Piano Concerto helped. The work was the focal point for the 1996 movie “Shine.” In the movie, Australian pianist David Helfgott, overwhelmed by the Third’s complexity and emotions as well as his father’s emotional abuse, collapses on stage while performing it. The genesis of the concerto, however, is not quite so steeped in artistic angst.
Still in Russia, Rachmaninoff in 1909 was strapped for cash. He wrote the Third for an American tour that he hoped would bring enough money for his family and for a car. He premiered the concerto in New York in 1909 and played it several times on the tour. The premiere met a chilly reception. One critic said it was too long – it lasts 45 minutes, compared with the more typical concerto time of about 20-30 minutes – and that while it was full of melancholy, it did not rise to full tragedy.
Today, however, Rach 3 is widely performed. Rachmaninoff’s brilliant working and reworking of tuneful themes, the driving rhythms, and the use of folk music keep it alive for audiences. As Ling said, Rach 3 is “probably the most difficult concerto to play.” For all its lush old-fashioned romanticism, Rach 3 is full of dissonances that contrast with its tonal center, a quality it shares with Schnittke’s piece. Schnittke uses bursts of dissonances, but Rach 3 “is more subtle, particularly in its underlying harmonic intensity,” he said.
The weekend’s program reaches back finally to Tchaikovsky, perhaps the greatest personification of “Russian soul.” In the Fourth Symphony, we hear intense Russian melancholy and passion. By 1877, when he was 34, Tchaikovsky had to confront the secret he had kept from all but a few friends – his homosexuality.
He was working on this symphony when a disturbed young woman declared her love for him. Although he tried to put her off, Tchaikovsky was what today we call a self-loathing gay man, and he longed for “normalcy.” He married the woman, within weeks, the marriage collapsed, and Tchaikovsky suffered a mental breakdown. He finished the Fourth while recuperating in Switzerland and Italy.
Although Tchaikovsky discouraged his friends from reading too much into the symphony, music lovers and critics see reflecting his passage from despair to relief. The symphony opens with what Tchaikovsky himself called the “kernel of the whole symphony” – stirring fanfares that announce the presence of Fate, which keeps us from achieving happiness. “One can only resign oneself and lament fruitlessly,” he wrote.
But the first movement hardly wallows; it alternates between resignation and hopes for happiness. Sadness or perhaps regret is clearer in the second movement, which opens with a dreamy sequence from the oboe. Tchaikovsky labeled this richly melodic movement, “andantino in modo di canzona (“a little slow, like a song”).
The third and fourth movements are about recovery. In both, Tchaikovsky draws on Russian folk themes. The movements run into each other without a break, almost as if Tchaikovsky is in a hurry to get the dark times behind him. Tchaikovsky likened the mood of the third movement to the first flush of booziness when drinking wine. The strings playing only in pizzicato and winds shuffle back and forth to get through the music.
The fourth then bursts through with unbridled joy – con fuoco (“with fire”), as Tchaikovsky labeled it. Passionate, brassy and bold, it is a breathless and breathtaking spiraling race to the finish.
Whether or not this program is about the “Russian soul,” it is about music as big and as great as the country that produced it.
CONCERT INFO: The San Diego Symphony presents works by Schnittke, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. Thursday, May 18, 8 p.m., California Center for the Arts, Escondido. San Diego performances are on Friday and Saturday, May 19 and 20 at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at Copley Symphony Hall. Tickets: $20-$60; order at 619- 235-0804 or online