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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

From Russia with Love

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Live classical music generally takes the summer off, with the possible exception of a Fourth of July event held outdoors with lawn chairs and picnic tables substituting for plush seats at a concert hall. The Waukesha Symphony Orchestra (WSO) has just such an event planned, but apart from an “Armed Forces Salute,” much of the program takes on a distinctly Slavic flavor. Since the WSO’s upcoming season is focused on Rachmaninov and his world, Maestro Alexander Platt enlists the summer pops concert as an overture to next season.

  The Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian (1903-78) was one of the Soviet Union’s most prized cultural representatives, and, indeed, he produced the kinds of works the authorities loved. One such work was the ballet Gayaneh (1957), which survives its clunky communist plot through the exotic dances from Act Two. The WSO performs three dances from Gayaneh, including the world famous “Sabre Dance.”

  Alexander Borodin (1833-87) found his musical inspiration largely in Russian Central Asia, certainly made evident in his opera Prince Igor (1887). Therein we find the brilliant and irresistibly “barbaric” “Polovtsian Dances.” One of the most popular melodies from these dances was used by Robert Wright and George “Chet” Forrest in their 1953 musical, Kismet, the overture to which is likewise on the program.

  For a respite from the revelry, Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1943) contributes his most famous orchestrated song, Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14 (1915), a sensual concert hall delicacy. Rachmaninov idolized his predecessor, Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky (1840-93), the creator of some of classical music’s most popular themes. Tchaikovsky composed his Marche Slave, Op. 31 (1876) to benefit soldiers wounded in the war against the Ottoman Empire, a work of great emotional strength that uses the imperial anthem “God Save the Tsar” to great effect. But his most famous piece of musical nationalism is the 1812 Festival Overture in E-Flat Major, Op. 49 (1880). This brilliantly orchestrated, tightly crafted and immensely exciting piece of music is considered even by the most serious and sophisticated classical music lovers to be the pre-eminent “fun” work for orchestra.

  In addition to the classical works mentioned above, Platt and the WSO have added some lighter modern fare. John Williams’ score for the Star Wars trilogy, from which the WSO plays a medley, has been considered film music’s version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. There is also a suite from Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s Fiddler on the Roof (1964); a 007 Medley utilizing the famous “James Bond Theme” by Monty Norman and excerpts from John Barry’s famous Bond film scores; and a suite from the 20th Century Fox animated feature Anastasia (1997).

  As Maestro Platt says of the event: “This concert is a light, nifty way to get into the mood” of the upcoming concert season, “with not only light Russian classics but a host of truly lighter works that were inspired by that culture.” The multifaceted program ensures that “there really is something for everyone; it’s a perfect introduction to the season. As for what we do at the end of the 1812 Overture, that would be a trade secret! Don’t worry, it’s loud!”

  The concert takes place Friday, June 27, at the Country Springs Hotel in Pewaukee.