This Week in Classical Music W/Randy Kinkel 08/26/18

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Rimsky-Korsakov: Most underrated Composer in history?

Bernstein's "Quiet Place" trimmed to 90 minutes



It’s “This Week in Classical Music”; an update on what’s happening in the classical music world; I’m Randy Kinkel.

Is Rimsky-Korsakov the most underrated composer in history?

Writing in the New York Times, Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim says the answer is “Yes”. This 19th-century Russian composer is mainly known for orchestral showpieces like “Scheherazade,” or the castanet-filled “Capriccio Espagnol.” These works made Rimsky-Korsakov’s reputation as a master of musical color — which is criticspeak for decorative, surface charm.

The Bard Music Festival recently made a case for a reappraisal of Rimsky’s importance, with a series of concerts and lectures that showed his role in forging a Russian national style. The festival closed last weekend. Musicologist Richard Taruskin says Rimsky-Korsakov — a Russian naval officer who came to write 15 operas and taught Stravinsky — deserves much better.  In his opinion, he is “the most underrated composer in history.”

As one of the group of composers called the mighty handful, Rimsky-Korsakov believed in forging a truly Russian music where Intuition, rather than technique, was the guiding process; melody was king, and awkwardness a sign of authenticity. But when he accepted a professorship at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, he found himself having to teach fundamentals of music theory that HE barely understood. For the next three years he taught himself counterpoint, composing dozens of fugues, and studying scores by Bach, who had been a target of disdain among the Mighty Bunch. Rimsky-Korsakov came out of this woodshedding period a vastly more polished composer and applied his new technical skill to deepening, rather than abandoning, the principles of Russian music.

Throughout his long, distinguished career, Leonard Bernstein always wanted to write, “one real moving American opera that any American can understand.”

"A Quiet Place" was his offering. Bernstein’s final stage work, it had its premiere in 1983 and was conceived as a sequel to his one-act “Trouble in Tahiti,” A sharp satire of suburban ennui that played with 1950s pop styles; But the original version is too Big and expensive to do. There had long been a need for a more intimate “Quiet Place” that could be done by conservatories and smaller companies.

“It’s a major Bernstein theatrical work that had just vanished,” said Garth Edwin Sunderland, VP for creative projects at the Leonard Bernstein Office is a kind of in-house editor and arranger for the composer’s estate. “One of the reasons is the huge cast, huge orchestra. It’s expensive. To put the kind of resources that requires, is difficult for major opera companies to manage.”

So Sutherland decided to try downsizing the work himself.

The orchestra of 72 players was reduced to an ensemble of 18, creating leaner textures and encouraging a less operatic singing and acting style. This chamber adaptation, a tidy 90 minutes long, was unveiled in 2013, and has recently been released as part of the celebrations of the centennial of Bernstein’s birth — with Kent Nagano conducting the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. 

 For more on these and other items and events, go to the website, K-B-A-C-H dot org; Be listening each week at this time for another update. Follow us on Facebook and twitter, and also listen every weekday at Noon for the Most Wanted Hour with Linda Cassidy, playing your top 100 classical hits.  I’m Randy Kinkel for KBACH’s “This Week in Classical Music”; Member supported 89.5 KBAQ Phoenix and HD, a service of Rio Salado College and Arizona State University.