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Crazy Cube Wails and Sings


Clara Rockmore plays RCA Theremin (file photo)
Clara Rockmore plays RCA Theremin (file photo)

With a theremin wailing, the New York Festival of Song revived Rachmaninoff for a stellar soirée at the Gardner Museum Sunday. “From Russia to Riverside Drive: Rachmaninoff and Friends” provided NYFOS’s usual dose of learning worn lightly, impeccable delivery, and witty repartee I love and have come to expect.

Exploring the songs of Sergei Rachmaninoff with three sections and five musicians spread across “Rachmaninoff At Home,” “Interlude: Manhattan,” and “Rachmaninoff: Escape,” the afternoon delivered a biography of an artist and of an age. Unlike his younger compatriot Vladimir Nabokov, Rachmaninoff did not thrive in translation. While he continued to perform and remained immersed in music once he left Russia, he stopped writing songs entirely and actually composed very few works in the final 25- years in exile. Songs, especially, were linked to Russian poetry and once he was no longer surrounded by that living fountain of thought and feeling captured in verse, his muse deserted him. The erotic sensuality of his music, manifest in these songs, gives us much to appreciate; at an earlier time, they conveyed a cultural cachet that carried over to his major musical premières in 1920s Manhattan. Sunday’s middle section allowed jazz, Gershwin, and the theremin to recreate the sound-world the composer heard there.

The show owed much to the wonderful characters on stage of which Steven Blier remains very much the animating spirit. His wonderful notes captured lightly worn but deep reverence for the music and musicians. He organized, arranged, played piano on about half the program—a paragon of subtlety, of sensitive musicality and artistry, a reservoir of emotional intelligence informing his fingers. Joining him on the second Steinway grand was Michael Barrett, an excitable and powerful pianist. (Since this program concerns the larger-than-life Rachmaninoff with his immense stature and outsized hands which easily spanned a 13th at the keyboard, I should add the caveat that Barrett does not match Rachmaninoff’s power at the piano. Then again, I am not sure anyone alive today does.) Soprano Dina Kuznetsova and baritone Owens both have powerful and richly dark voices (not all of which came from singing in Russian) and deliveries packed with depth and feeling. Trained as opera singers, they brought this Russian lieder corpus to vivid life.

The selection included famous songs by Rachmaninoff and lesser-known gems. “Harvest of Sorrow” (op. 4, no. 5) and “In the Silence of the Night” (op. 4, no. 3) anchored the former, while “No Prophet, I” and “A-oo!” (op. 38, no. 6) are, for me, in the latter category. Blier commented that “To Her” (op. 38, no. 2) is his favorite song on this program (though that be an unfashionable thing to say); it captures elements of Janáček, Scriabin, and Debussy all in one song. Famed for his lush romanticism, the composer also imbibed elements of musical Modernism; Blier effectivle called attention to this expanded sound-world in Rachmaninoff’s œuvre. We were also treated to his only comic song, “Were You Hiccupping, Natasha?” (from 1899 to a poem by Prince Piotr Anreyevich Vyazemsky), which Owen sang with impeccably timed comic delivery. It scintillated like Porter or Gershwin; pity we don’t have more of its like.

Jazz then entered the mix with Blier’s arrangement of Gershwin’s “Little Jazz Bird” and “By the Waters of Minnetonka” by Thurlow Lieurance and again in an arrangement by Zez Confrey, an impresario and composer of piano-curiosities with a fabulous name to boot. This interlude also brought Dalit Warshaw on theremin to the fore. Rachmaninoff was at the Plaza Hotel Grand Ballroom on January 28th, 1928 when Léon Theremin presented his eponymous instrument. Warshaw is clearly a master of its wailing and throbbing; she treated us to “Orientalia: Two Vocalises” by Theremin’s protégé Joseph Schillinger, among other numbers. At the end of the program she joined the other four musicians for a treat, Rachmaninoff’s famous Vocalise.

Hearing a theremin live was a very pleasant surprise. Likewise hearing the music of Schillinger, composed for it. Being able to examine the device up close after the concert opened a fascinating window into another world and time. [One may scoff now, but RCA introduced the instrument as one that could be quickly mastered without training. The truth is quite different. Absolute pitch is almost essential as is taste.] The example we heard is older—if not from the 1920s then from the 1950s, with its scuffed wooden cabinet and Bakelite knobs. I may not share Warshaw’s passion for it, and certainly not her mastery, nor indeed Theremin’s desire for an instrument played without touch, but I appreciate the opportunity to hear a theremin played under such ideal conditions and in the capable aura of Warshaw. Barrett’s scoring of Duke Ellington’s “On a Turquoise Cloud” for voice and theremin plus piano (a work unknown to Rachmaninoff) was a beautiful, wordless vocalise. It highlighted the ethereal potential and the limitations of the theremin (notably the uniform timbre which does not blend well with other musical colors, being always too replete with its very electric essence). Listen to the most noted exponent Clara Rockmore play the Vocalise here.

The final act on this program grouped songs by Rachmaninoff about escape. As much as he loved the idea,  these works found him sounding infinitely less fond.

Blier’s quite fond of “a crazy cube called a concert hall” and informed the audience that were it missing tomorrow, they would know he had taken it home. New York Festival of Song is consistently the only act which realizes the full potential of the space. The musicians move around and sing to all sides, treating it like theater in the round. For the afternoon, Calderwood Hall became a Manhattan cabaret; Blier et cie enthralled us all.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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  1. How I wish I could have known in advance and been there. I live in Costa Rica. I am named Natalie after my great grandmother Natalie Rachmaninoff, Sergei’s wife. I love the “Were You Hiccuping, Natasha? I have never heard of it. Please let me know where I can obtain copy to listen to it, however maybe this is the translation from Russian to English? I smiled while reading your article. What a treat ! Thank You. Natalie Wanamaker Javier

    Comment by Natalie Wanamaker Javier — November 10, 2015 at 10:27 pm

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