Concert Revives Avant-Garde Russia

Russian classical music in the 20th century usually evokes just two names - Prokofiev and Shostakovich - and a few often-performed, highly serious symphonies and concertos. But there is more diversity to modern Russian music than that.

Gunther Schuller, artistic director of The Festival at Sandpoint, will conduct the Spokane Symphony Sunday at Sandpoint’s Memorial Field in an all-Russian program featuring Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3, Alexander Scriabin’s 1908 “Poem of Ecstasy,” Alexander Mosolov’s industrial tone poem “The Iron Foundry” and two works showing Dmitri Shostakovich’s lighter side.

Schuller elected to begin Sunday’s program with Mosolov’s “The Iron Foundry.” The work created a sensation when it first was performed in 1927, a graphic glorification of Soviet industry with clangorous harmonies and insistent, factory-like rhythms. “When I was growing up,” Schuller says, “every conductor and every orchestra performed this piece. Then it just disappeared.

“It’s a reminder that before Stalin cracked down in the mid-‘30s, Russia had a very healthy avant-garde - not only in music, but in literature, painting, architecture, you name it. Then came the crackdown, and everybody had to conform.”

The romantic centerpiece of Schuller’s all-Russian program was written 10 years after “The Iron Foundry” by “the Russian who couldn’t return,” Sergei Rachmaninoff. But the rich harmonies and lyric melodies of Rachmaninoff are echoes of the 19th century, not the 1930s.

Rachmaninoff’s opposition to the Soviet regime made it impossible to return to his homeland after the 1918 revolution.

His last works, including the Symphony No. 3, were all written in exile.

Even more torridly romantic than Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony is Alexander Scriabin’s 1908 “Poem of Ecstasy,” a tone poem the composer derived from the frank eroticism of a literary poem he worked on simultaneously with the musical work.

Two works by Shostakovich on Sunday’s program are worlds away from the romanticism of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin.

Shostakovich is certainly the most frequently performed of Soviet era composers, but his name is almost never associated with jazz. “It’s hard for us to believe that jazz, or something like it, spread all over Europe after World War I,” Schuller says. “Even Stalin couldn’t stamp it out completely. I must have over 200 records of Russian jazz.

“Shostakovich never wrote jazz in the real sense of the word, but he did write some music for orchestras like our hotel orchestras of the ‘20s and ‘30s. The Suite for Jazz Orchestra we’ll be doing Sunday is like that.

It probably came from some of the many film scores he wrote. Most people in the West don’t know anything about them.”

The remaining Shostakovich work on Sunday’s program is the Polka from his 1930 ballet, “The Golden Age,” a parody of a visit by a Soviet soccer team to a Western capital.

Stalin thought the ballet depicted class warfare much too frivolously, so the ballet was banned. The orchestral suite (including the Polka) has remained in the orchestra repertoire, and the ballet was recently revived by the Kirov Ballet.

xxxx Spokane Symphony in an All-Russian Program Location and time: Memorial Field in Sandpoint, Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $27.50 reserved, $17.50 general

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