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Monday, February 18 , 2019, 11:16 am | Fair 55º

 
 
 
 

Symphony Goes All Russian on Us

Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky provide inspiration for Santa Barbara Symphony program.

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This weekend’s Santa Barbara Symphony concerts bear the name "Russian Romantics," and the program will include three works: Modest Mussorgsky’s tone poem — dear to generations of young viewers of Walt Disney’s Fantasia – A Night on Bald Mountain; Sergei Rachmaninoff’s definitive Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini; and Peter Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in f minor, Opus 36.

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The concerts begin at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Arlington Theatre. Both performances will be conducted by the popular new music director, Nir Kabaretti, with the brilliant pianist Lilya Zilberstein as soloist in the Rachmaninoff.

There are almost as many types of "Romanticism" as there are Romantics, of course, but the Russian variety of the malady in question here partakes very heavily of Romanticism as described by Geoffrey Scott in his book, The Architecture of Humanism.

"Romanticism may be said to consist in a high development of poetic sensibility toward the remote, as such," he said. "It idealizes the distant, both of time and place; it identifies beauty with strangeness. In the curious and the extreme, which are disdained by classical taste, and in the obscure detail which that taste is too abstract to include, it finds fresh sources of inspiration.

"It is most often retrospective, turning away from the present, however valuable, as being familiar. It is always idealistic, casting on the screen of an imaginary past the projection of its unfulfilled desires."

This being the case, you may well wonder at the apparent absence of Rimsky-Korsakov from the program. Wonder no more, he is there — in A Night on Bald Mountain. Korsakov took themes from Mussorgsky’s early and rarely heard "musical picture," St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain, and re-worked them into the ever-popular tone poem that the symphony will perform this weekend.

The musical and literary derivations of the well-known work are rather complicated, and appreciation of the music does not at all require that they be sorted out. Mussorgsky never enjoyed the wild popular successes of his friend, Rimsky-Kosakov, and so it is fitting that he be given full credit for a work of which he is the original creator.

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Implicit in Scott’s remarks about Romanticism is the emotion known as nostalgia, which Scott refers to indirectly when he says that Romanticism’s "most typical form is the cult of the extinct." Except for the Mussorgsky, the program could be justly called "Russian Nostalgia," for where would Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov be without their soulful longing for lost — and perhaps imaginary – worlds.

You can try blaming the 1917 revolution for Rachmaninoff’s despairing tone, since it made him an exile; the 18th Variation in the Rhapsody is such a perfect evocation of nostalgia that it has been used in the score of countless motion pictures. Yet what Robert Craft called Rachmaninoff’s "utopia of hopeless melancholy" was present, fully formed, in the Second Piano Concerto of 1901. And the roots of Tchaikovsky’s nostalgic fantasies lie elsewhere, but that is spadework for another day.

Single tickets are available at the Arlington Box office at 805.963.4408.

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