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Russian Nativism Naturalized at Bard

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Thu Dec 13th, 2018

The Orchestra Now with Leon Botstein

The Orchestra Now at Bard College under the baton of Leon Botstein presented a program entitled Russian Evolution: from Rimsky-Korsakov to Glière. Just as a tour of Europe and the Middle East made journalist Samuel Clemens from Missouri a man of literature by reworking his letters home into a fictional narrative in Innocents Abroad, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsavov’s naval tour of the world made him into a musician as during his three-year tour of duty he dutifully worked on creating his first symphony. Violinist Clara Engen eloquently introduced this symphony with a light touch of humor.  

This first symphonic effort in 1865 was hailed as the premiere authentic Russian symphony because it employed native folk tunes and avoided Germanic structures by employing meander connections as if one were traveling down a river or moving from island to island like Darwin touring the globe on The Beagle. I enjoyed the first movement, especially the second half of it, yet found most of the trip solemnly pedestrian and certainly not as exciting as Darwin’s discoveries or Twain’s satire. Some genuine astonishment was evoked in the awareness that the man who cobbled together this symphony, mentored by Mily Balakirev, was the same man who later composed Scheherezade or the many operas for which he remains famous. The brevity of this twenty-six-minute historical footnote was a blessing.

The fireworks whizzed all in the next chapter: Reinhold Glière’s Ilya Muromets (1911). Glière (from Kiev) had tutored Nikolai Myaskovsky and Sergei Prokofiev and was a good friend of Sege Koussevitzky, who conducted Glière’s second symphony. Unlike those composers like Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Medtner, and Rachmaninov who fled west after the Revolution; Glière had supported the revolution and moved east to distance himself from the political maelstrom, dawdling in Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, as he melded native sounds into Debussy-like tonal colors.  

Appropriating an old Slavic battle hero from medieval folklore, Glière worked in Wagnerian motif without German musical structures. The story of the program, charmingly introduced with some Marvel comic book analogies by violist Emmanuel Koh, concerns a mighty pagan warrior who experiences marvelous battles on earth but fails to hack his way into heaven in his last battle with the angles who multiply with ever stroke he cleaves them withy. I find this conceit an amusing anti-war, Christian conclusion. Yet music may carry more than one program on its shoulders. The four movements also chart the sounds and moods of the four seasons: winter, spring, summer, and fall.

Adam Romey’s hauntingly, brooding bassoon opens the winter season with mysterious shivers; The sprightly flutes of Leah Stevens and Denis Savelyev along with Mathew Ross’ jubilant piccolo announce lengthy spring brimming with sounds of insects at work; delightful horns celebrate the brief summer glow; the fierce frost of autumn is frightening, magnificent, and lit with robust clangor. I prefer dual non-fundamentalist programs that journey into the world of poetic sounds.

This third symphony of Glière was an incredible treat: one felt transported to another world to hear sounds that only a great artist who had traveled much might discover, and let us, in another era, and another country hear anew in this monumental epic.

Some of the tonal colors evoked in this symphony, a favorite of conductor Harold Farberman who recently died (Farberman had conducted the first Western recording of Glière’s masterpiece back in the vinyl era); Botstein announced that this concert was dedicated to the famed teacher’s memory. The last glimmers of the symphony were gentle, elegiac notes.