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Different Languages in Russian Festival


What was so Russian about “Music of the 20th & 21st Centuries: Songs from the Silver Age to Today,” the seventh of eight programs in the second Rachmaninoff Russian Music Festival? Looking at Saturday evening’s program at First Church in Cambridge featuring 10 composers, all with Russian names the likes of Glazunov, Tariverdiev, Kushnarev, and Nazaykinskaya, should roundly answer the question. The music itself, however, told another story, dipping into Bach counterpoint, the international vessel of post-Webern soundings, Jewish folksong, French fin-de-siècle organ bravura, and even into one of our own country’s indigenous dialects – that being the blues.

Were there something to rave about, it would be the extremely high quality of performance by the young musicians of Juventas New Music Ensemble of Boston. In Shostakovich’s Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok soprano Julia Steinbok was absolutely stunning. What a voice, what taste! Violinist Olga Patramanska-Bell, cellist Rachel Gawell, and pianist Yevgenia Semeina-Maroyan instinctively knew how to project into this starkly spare and emotionally charged music a life of its own, this being no easy thing to do. Here, that Russian feel was in abundance.

Another big plus would be the opportunity afforded to witness the performance of rarely heard music. Case in point: prior to the concert, I searched libraries and Internet for Kushnarev’s organ Passacaglia which was nowhere to be found.

Could Juventas have taken Alfred Schnittke’s Suite in the Old Style, one of the pieces on its somewhat unusual program, as inspiration for what turned out to be more an evening of something borrowed, something eclectic? Perhaps surprisingly, this diversity appears to reflect the festival’s own take on its “musical treasure chest.” In a written welcome we read: “The music of my homeland is as varied as the vast territory of Russia itself: austere chants steeped in ancient religious traditions invoke the stillness of the Taiga and the rhythms of the water Karelian north; baroque point-and-counterpoint interplay as intricately as the finest gilding and rococo found in the Royal palaces…”

So, what Juventas chose to do could be considered to be in sync with the festival’s mission. Even so, it was not a wholly satisfying evening; “Russia’s musical treasure chest,” for me, turned out to be by and large misleading. Schnittke’s artificial adoption of pastorale, minuet, and pantomime annoyed and bored, their being better put to use for elementary teaching purposes.

The music of four young Russian composers further corroborated the “varied” means of “Russian” expression. Wild West Sketch of Piotr Szewczyk was the piece that took from the blues and did so thoroughly, taking riffs and chord progressions right out of the common stock. Moshe Shulman’s Frozen Moments trilly, glissy post-Webern sounds were at times delicate but at times betrayed his static concept and Webern-like syntax by becoming unreservedly emotive, even ending with a good old bang — as Salieri would have put it in Amadeus.

Isam Variations by Florie Namir went the folksong route, its variations being “based on the traditional Jewish melody from the Sephardic Jewish Liturgy.” The Jewish flavors were unmistakable. There were dense, raucous, and uninviting sounds that escaped me. Wrapping up the “international” evening was Passacaglia Zero by talented and quite young Polina  Nazaykinskaya. If her gifts were in evidence, so too was her overt predilection for melodramatic soundtracks.

The concert brochure itself was sketchy. Who wrote the welcome mission statement? Why were there no short bios on the young composers, only blurbs (and not very well-written ones) on their works? Come to think of it, who knows the older composers, M. Tariverdiev, G. A. Mushel, and Kh.S. Kushnarev, as their names appear on the program?

And once again, at the risk of beating a dead horse, why this venue, First Church in Cambridge, with its severe drawbacks acoustically?  During Shostakovich fortissimo passages I could have sworn I was in a fish tank.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.


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