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.

Peter and the Wolf has been a favorite of mine since I saw the old 1940s animated Disney rendition when I was little. Remembering that, I was happy to see so many kids in the audience. Kevin Kline served as the narrator (the program identified this as his New York Philharmonic debut) and introduced us to the instruments associated with the different characters in the simple tale: the strings plays Peter’s theme, the bassoon plays Grandfather’s theme, the flute plays the little bird’s theme, etc. The melodies are charmingly singable but still so interesting. The harmonic progressions are striking and dramatic, and the orchestration weaves the different instruments together vividly. When the narrator tells you, for example, that Peter is encouraging the little bird to distract the wolf while he prepares a lasso to catch it, you can hear how Prokofiev describes that musically, with the trills of the flute (the bird) interjecting over the cheerful strings (Peter) and the menacing horns (the wolf).

Khachaturian’s Spartacus pas de deux is too syrupy for my taste (conductor Bramwell Tovey, speaking conversationally between pieces in his congenial British accent, informed the audience that the famous adagio served as the theme for some sort of BBC melodrama in the 1970s, which strikes me as all too apropos), but Borodin’s symphonic poem In the Steppes of Central Asia is intriguingly eerie and quiet, especially after Khachaturian’s romantic bombast. For much of the piece, the violins hold an uncannily high harmonic that would be piercing if it weren’t so quiet. Whispering, the note suggests an endless, distant horizon, exactly the sort of barren landscape Borodin meant to evoke.

The program opened with Glinka and ended with Tchaikovsky, whom many fellow Russians composers rejected as not “Russian” enough, but never mind. The selection was odd on its own—the Capriccio italien just doesn’t scream “Moscow”—though it is an appealing work, I’ll grant, with its lovely lilting melodies and energetic closing tarantella. That said, I wasn’t surprised when Tovey reappeared after his final bow to lead a more Russian-esque encore: Khachaturian’s raucous Sabre Dance. It’s not subtle—the insistent jackhammer melody would be unbearable if the piece didn’t end in less than three minutes—but it’s fun. And no matter why Khachaturian wrote it the way he did, it’s good to have music that reminds people that the classical concert hall can be a fun place to spend an evening.