Moscow on the Hudson

The New York Philharmonic (not the Robin Williams movie, god forbid) on Thursday, July 5.

Programming a relatively casual concert entirely with music by Russian composers is sort of brilliant because much of the Russian canon is quite accessible to a lay audience. Memorable folk-like melodies, dazzling orchestration, and an infectious sense of vigor permeate the catalog. But thinking about that too hard always makes me sort of queasy.

Sure, you see the roots of that open, of-the-people quality in the nineteenth century, when Russian composers, led by Mily Balakirev, championed an essentially “Russian” style that embraced traditional Slavic musical elements. The influence of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a truly gifted orchestrator, also helped Russian music capture large audiences. But in the twentieth century, musical style became a state matter, with Stalin condemning composers to the gulag for the crime of “formalism.” So when I listen to some of the more crowd-pleasing works of Khachaturian or Shostakovich or Prokofiev, I always wonder, Is this what he would have written if a charge of elitism didn’t carry the threat of death? And if I enjoy it, does that put me in an aesthetic camp with Stalin? I know that’s incredibly silly and simplistic, but it bothers me nonetheless, and it saddens me that Stalin’s shadow still lingers over Russian music, even years after the fall of Communism.

Of course, such self-indulgent, over-serious ruminations are not at all the point of the Philharmonic’s “Moscow on the Hudson” program, part of its Summertime Classics series. That’s just me. And once I got over freaking out over a new bit of trivia (Did you know that the original text for Peter and the Wolf identified Peter as a Communist Pioneer?), I had a good time. It’s hard not to enjoy classical Russian music.