The Community Arts Music Association will offer a concert by Russia’s longest-standing symphony orchestra, the Saint-Petersburg Academic Philharmonic, at 8 p.m. this Wednesday, March 23, in The Granada, 1214 State St. in Santa Barbara.
The program, conducted by Nikolai Alexeev, will be only half Russian and will consist of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture, Opus 36, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1 in Eb-Major for Cello and Orchestra, Opus 107 and Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E-Minor, Opus 98. Dazzling American cellist Alisa Weilerstein will solo in the Shostakovich piece.
The Russian Easter Overture dates from 1888, the same year as Scheherazade — clearly, a hot year for the 44-year-old. The piece is based on themes from an 18th-century book of Russian Orthodox canticles called the Obilkhod. In Russia, it is also known as the Bright Holiday Overture, “Bright Holiday” being a popular Russian term for Easter. Rimsky-Korsakov spent much of his boyhood in the neighborhood of a famous monastery, Tikhvin, and heard these beautiful, penetrating melodies so often that they became a part of his permanent musical DNA.
Shostakovich wrote his first Cello Concerto in 1959. He gave it to his friend Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom it had been composed, and who memorized it in four days(!). It was introduced to the world on Oct. 4, 1959, in front of this very orchestra (then operating under the name “Leningrad Philharmonic”) conducted by Yevgeny Mravinsky. A month later, Rostropovich and Shostakovich were in Philadelphia for the work’s American premiere and first recording — both with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy.
The Philadelphia premiere was an event of considerable significance — in Western musical history and in the cultural history of the Cold War. Joseph Stalin was well and truly dead, and, as Hannah Arendt said long ago, the USSR, however loudly the Soviets might bluster, was now just an ordinary dictatorship, no longer a totalitarian state.
In the audience that November night were, in addition to Shostakovich, Soviet composers Dmitri Kabalevsky, Tikhon Khrennikov, Konstantin Dancevic and Fikret Amirov. Sitting near them (but perhaps not speaking to one another) were American composers Henry Cowell, Roger Sessions, Samuel Barber, Norman Dello Joio, Paul Creston, Gian-Carlo Menotti, Vincent Persichetti, Elie Siegmeister and Richard Yardumian. (The resulting LP, issued by Columbia, was also a very big deal for the vinyl-raised music lovers of the post-war baby boom.)
It was obviously conceived as an important gathering, a milestone, and if the concerto had been less than a masterpiece, it would have been awkward all around. But, of course, the concerto is a masterpiece — and a thrilling virtuoso showcase, to boot. It is witty and paranoid at the same time, full of Shostakovich’s unique lyricism, anxious and poignant.
Now, I have a question for you. The Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 (there is a No. 2) was a tremendous hit, and immediately entered the permanent repertory of any cellist aspiring to greatness and/or popularity. As this program attests, it is still there. That was in 1959. Can anyone name a concerto for any instrument, premiered since then, anywhere in the world, that has achieved anything like that ubiquitous permanence?
As for the Brahms piece, its sublimity is utterly uncontaminated by local conditions of space and time. There is no political angle. There is no possible program. It is, in the highest sense, perfectly abstract music, and it is perfectly ravishing.
Tickets to see the Saint-Petersburg Philharmonic are available from The Granada box office at 1214 State St. or 805.899.2222. Click here to order online.
— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at email@example.com.