Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Back to the Dream-World

Today's performance by the Russian Chamber Orchestra under Alexander Vereshagin as part of the October Russian Music Festival organized by the Noontime Concerts™ series at Old St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco reminded me that Die Tote Stadt is not the only theatrical composition that spends the better part of its plot in the dream-world. Marius Petipa's ballet Raymonda, with music by Alexander Glazunov, goes into the dream-world in the second scene of its first act and remains there for all of its second act. Since this ballet was first presented in 1898, it predates The Interpretation of Dreams; and I doubt that Petipa would have had quite the analytic interest in dreams that occupied Sigmund Freud. Nevertheless, I once saw the Boston Ballet perform excerpts from Swan Lake as entertainment for a convention of the American Psychiatric Association, prefaced with remarks by dance critic Doris Hering to the effect that any prince who tells his mother that he wants to marry a swan must be ripe for analysis.

Similarly, one could approach Raymonda in terms of the psyche of its protagonist, who is basically a young woman who gets cold feet on her wedding night and dreams of being abducted by a Saracen chief who her betrothed had conquered in the Crusades. However, while both the music and the libretto of Die Tote Stadt delve deeply into the psyche of a man obsessed with his deceased wife, Raymonda is best known for the easily danceable music that Glazunov provided. Vereshagin presented a suite of four of those movements, all of which serve primarily to revive memories of past ballet performances (in my case the American Ballet Theatre production staged by Rudolf Nureyev). Basically, this means that through Vereshagin the music conveyed its own sense of motion, sufficient to breath life into even the vaguest memories of a ballet company versed in the classical Russian style.

The rest of Vereshagin's program was also theatrical in nature, divided between opera and dance. While they were new to me, I suspect that the "Gavotte" and "Valse" that concluded the program were extracted from one (or two) of the "Ballet Suites" that Dmitri Shostakovich had composed for orchestra, not always with specific choreography in mind. I also suspect that the arrangement for chamber orchestra (strings and one percussion player) was Vereshagin's and was effective enough that one did not miss the usual lush orchestral sound characteristic of the composer.

On the opera side the program opened with the Polovtsian songs (rather than the more familiar dances) from the opera Prince Igor, by Alexander Borodin. Like the dances, these songs (again arranged for chamber orchestra without any vocalists) captured many of the idiomatic folk elements that can be found in the dances. Much of the rhetoric is similar, but there is a clear sense of a vocal line and accompaniment. The other operatic excerpt was the intermezzo from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride.

Given Vereshagin's tendency to go "pops" with an encore, I wondered whether or not this concert would end with an encore of the "Tahiti-Trot," Shostakovich's orchestration (and arrangement) of Vincent Youmans' "Tea for Two." Those unfamiliar with this side of Shostakovich will probably appreciate the Wikipedia entry for this work:

The "Tahiti Trot" is Shostakovich's 1927[1] orchestration of "Tea for Two" from the musical No, No, Nanette by Vincent Youmans. Shostakovich wrote it in response to a challenge from conductor Nikolai Malko: after the two listened to the song on record, Malko bet 100 roubles that Shostakovich could not completely re-orchestrate the song from memory in under an hour. Shostakovich took him up and won, completing the orchestration in around 45 minutes. The "Tahiti Trot" was first performed in 1928[2], and has been a popular encore ever since. It was used as an entr'acte for the ballet The Age of Gold at the suggestion of conductor Alexander Gauk[citation needed].

However, the joy of this work really lies in Shostakovich's use of his orchestral palette; and I doubt that Vereshagin would have been able to maintain the Shostakovich flavor in a chamber orchestra version!

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