The Strathcona Symphony’s first concert of the year, The Russians Are Coming, celebrates the titans of Russian composers who have become staples in the modern world’s classical music repertoire.
But why, you may ask, a Russian program?
“This concert,” says conductor Pippa Williams, “came about as our tribute to the Canadian Winter Olympic Team as they make their way to Sochi next month. They are going to a country that may be strange to them, as it is to some of us.
“The SSO wanted to bridge some of that unfamiliarity by playing melodies that we all know but may not have known that they come from classical Russian composers.
“The Russians Are Coming is our opportunity to explore part of the Russian music tradition — a powerful soundscape rich with musical textures and exotic images. Moreover, it is a chance to discover something about ourselves and how Russian compositions have flavoured our North American culture.”
The Russians Are Coming samples well-known works from the golden age of Russian classical composers such as Glière, Rimsky-Korsakov, Ippolitov-Ivanov, Tchaikovsky, and Mussorgsky, who based their works on imperial Russian history and folk tales.
Early in the past century, Russia produced a new wave of composers, including Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Khachaturian, who projected Russian classical music into the 20th century.
The concert begins with Reinhold Glière’s Russian Sailor’s Dance from his 1927 ballet, The Red Poppy. It was hailed as the first Soviet ballet with a modern revolutionary theme, but contemporary perspectives may provide a less-political and more-humanitarian assessment of Glière’s internationalism.
The music of Mikhail Mikhailovich Ippolitov-Ivanov, one of Glière’s teachers, is very rarely heard. The SSO brings us a taste of Georgian folk songs in his triumphal Procession of the Sardar.
Following that is Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Dubinushka, inspired by an old folk tune (The Little Oak Stick) that was sung by demonstrating marchers during the time of the abortive revolution of 1905. The robust, swaggering march is an expression of the composer’s own defiance and resolve.
“There are 10 key changes in this piece,” exclaims Pippa Williams. “Ten! I think the orchestra was a little shocked to see that at first, but they’ve risen to the challenge.”
The SSO brings to life the image of the trickster in Dance Russe from Igor Stravinsky’s 1911 avant-garde ballet Petrushka, famously danced by Nijinsky in the Ballet Russe in Paris. The SSO celebrates Stravinsky as one of the most influential 20th century composers, who expanded the musical world to inspire visual artists such as Picasso and Matisse.
The first half of the concert concludes with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Op. 35 (1888), a symphonic suite based on scenes from the book One Thousand and One Nights. Its dazzling orchestration evokes a sound world of fairy-tale wonders in The Arabian Nights.
Scheherazade features a thrilling violin solo by 14-year-old SSO member, Maddy Erickson, a homeschool student from Campbell River. Currently studying with James Mark in Nanaimo, Maddy has been playing the violin for eight years. In 2012, she was awarded the Gold Medal for her Grade 8 violin exam from the Royal Conservatory of Music.
Maddy finds the Scheherazade piece “exciting and a little scary. It’s the first time I’ve played a solo with an orchestra and it’s a great experience.”
In reflecting on the piece, she commented, “It has a beautiful melody throughout, but it has a mysterious quality, too. It’s as if the music is leading up to something happy and joyful though temporary.
“There’s a counter melody,” she explains, “that reveals an almost-sinister undercurrent as if something unpleasant will be the outcome. It’s part of the great narrative quality Rimsky-Korsakov’s music.”
The second half of the concert is filled with more vibrant colour from the rich tapestry of Russian Classical Music: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Dance of the Tumblers from The Snow Maiden; and the rousing March from Sergei Prokofiev’s satirical 1921 opera The Love for Three Oranges, Op. 33.
The SSO treats us to the contrast between two of Aram Khachaturian’s works from his ballet Gayane (1939): the furiously energetic Sabre Dance and his sweet atmospheric Lullaby.
No concert of Russian music would be complete with out a work by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. The SSO will play one of his most recognizable pieces, Marche Slave, Op. 31 that premiered in Moscow in 1876. It was commissioned for a benefit concert to support Serb soldiers who had fought against the Ottoman Empire. Bright, at times festive, the piece is layered with melodies that project themes of triumph over tyranny.
The Russians Are Coming concludes with Modest Mussorgsky’s The Great Gate of Kiev from his monumental Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) that was a tribute to the drawings and watercolours by his friend, architect Victor Hartmann.
Performances are in the Native Sons Hall this Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.
Tickets are available from Blue Heron Books, and Laughing Oyster Bookshop or at the door. For reservations or for more information, call 250-331-0158.