Russian Music Notes


Hearing as much music as possible was naturally high on our list of things to do in Russia.  Seeing a ballet was way up there on my list but scheduling issues did not allow us to see any ballet at all.  Pity but it seems that the ballet calendar is more active in the spring and summer than in the winter.  The Bolshoi is undergoing repairs so we only saw it from the street.

The musical performances were in general excellent from the St. Petersburg Mariinsky Opera House to the violin trio who played Bach every day in the subway station under Red Square. 


Opera tickets were readily available.  Rather than standard repertoire we opted for operas that were less familiar.  We saw two operas in Moscow and one in St. Petersburg.

Dialogues des Carmélites, Francis Poulenc, (1889-1963) Russian premiere performed in French by The Helicon Opera, Moscow.

Based on a factual event which occurred at the end of the Reign of Terror in France in which 17 Carmelite nuns were guillotined.  (For more about this event Google Martyrs of Compiegne.)    

The cast, orchestra and crew consisted of well over 100 people.  The opera was performed in a small, sold out hall (about 300 people).  Voices overall were excellent and the orchestra very good (OK the brass had a few slip ups but that’s nothing new).  The beautiful choral music was exquisitely performed.   

Unfortunately the stage direction was almost non-existent or silly except for the final scene.  The staging for this scene was so bad that we will never forget the performance. 

The set was interesting being mainly one wall with moving panels.  For Scene One a panel opened to reveal a fireplace indicating a living room.  Other panels revealed windows and doors for various scenes.  I’m including three pictures of how the panels moved for the final scene of the opera.  The top of the panel lifted.  The movement is shown by the diagonal yellow line and arrows.  The opening took the shape of a cross and revealed the nuns walking up a ramp to the guillotine linking the martyrdom of the nuns to crucifixion of Jesus. 


Set for Dialogues des Carmélites

Set for Dialogues des Carmélites


Line and arrows show how panel lifts

Line and arrows show how panel lifts


Panels lift to form shape of cross

Panels lift to form shape of cross







Perhaps the most beautiful music of the opera is this final chorus in which the number of voices is reduced one by one with the death of each nun until there is none.  In an act of egregiously poor judgment the stage director chose to have the soldiers bowling in front of and at the bottom of the ramp.  Yes.  I said BOWLING!!!  They stood at the foot of the “cross” and rolled a ball down an alley.  The ball crashed into pins (which were exposed in the opening where the fireplace had been in Scene I) at the exact moment of the crash of the guillotine (off stage).  The rumbling of the balls almost obscured the beautiful chorus and completely upstaged the depiction of the tragic deaths of the nuns. 

OK, I get it.  The soldiers were playing a game of bowling similar to the soldiers playing a game of dice at the foot of the cross but this is opera and the music is more important than anything.  We were so distracted by the bowling that the horror of 17 nuns being sent to the guillotine was completely lost and all I could think of was that I hoped the bowling ball would jump out of the alley and land in the timpani. 


Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), performed in Russian at the Mariinsky Theater, St. Petersburg.

Home of opera and ballet

Home of opera and ballet



 From the beginning of the opera it is clear that the libretto (not Shakespeare’s Macbeth) of Lady Macbeth itself has problems.  Shostakovich, being torn between telling a story and making a political statement, wrote a fragmented and burdened opera.  The result of the political statement was that it was banned in the Soviet Union for 30 years.  Shostakovich’s use of verismo can compete with the best of the Italians who made this style popular.  Shostakovich was accused of writing a “pornophony” by critics because of his portrayal of sexual content in the music.   That being said, the music, especially that written for the orchestra and the soprano in the title role is often exquisitely beautiful.  The orchestra was top notch and the singing was excellent.  The role of Lady Macbeth is a tour de force and was performed at the highest level.   The sets and costumes were beautiful and worked very nicely.  Again the stage director made poor choices deciding push the graphic content to the point that the audience giggled in embarrassment.


Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District curtain call

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District curtain call

The Opera house itself is a full Baroque masterpiece.  We sat a few seats from the lavish tsar’s box.  The opera played to a full house and the subtitles were in English.

Tsar's Box

Tsar's Box




 La finta giardiniera (“The Pretended Garden-Girl”), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) performed by Helicon Opera, Moscow.

Mozart composed this opera buffa at the age of 18 years.  The plot is typical opera buffa  and even with the libretto in hand, it’s hard to make heads or tails of the story other than to say that a lot of people spend the entire opera running after the wrong people but in the last scene everything works out as it should.  The music is charming.  How could be Mozart and be otherwise?  It’s a great ensemble work with everyone getting nice music and a chance to shine.

Edwin and I decided to go back to the Helicon Opera our last night in Russia because at least musically speaking, our first experience had been worthwhile.  (We resisted the temptation to take our bowling shoes!) Plus neither of us had seen La finta giardiniera.  Because of rush hour in the subway, we arrived after the box office had closed but the head usher allowed us to slip in without tickets.  As the theater is small the seats were excellent.  Singing was good but not as high a level as in Dialogues des Carmélites.  The horns were still having problems but otherwise the orchestra was fine.  Again the stage directing was ridiculous with everyone getting shot at the end and then coming back to life. 

Mozart is always a nice way to spend an evening.



Why would anyone go to hear a concert of a modern American composer in Moscow?  I asked myself that question for three and a half endless hours of the An Evening of Music by Morton Feldman (1926-1987) performed at the Moscow Conservatory of Music.   If you aren’t familiar with Morton Feldman’s music, well what can I say?  He was a major 20th century composer of experimental music which is typically quiet, slow and way too long.  Edwin loved it.  It’s not my cup of tea but I don’t believe we could have heard a more perfectly performed concert than we heard that evening.  Those who stayed till the end and stayed awake gave a standing ovation to the excellent performers.


Edwin and Tchaikovsky

Edwin and Tchaikovsky


There are always coincidences and blessings in big cities. A series of mishaps led to Edwin offhandedly picking up a small English newspaper a few minutes after nine one evening.  On the front of the paper was a headline that listed a concert by Misha Piatigorsky.  Knowing that this is not such an uncommon name to see in Moscow, he thought there was little chance that it could be our friend Misha Piatigorsky who lives in New York City. 

We met Misha and his wife Ayelet in Jerusalem when Ayelet was a first year JTS cantorial student studying with me in there.  Misha made quite a following for himself in Israel after winning the Thelonius Monk award for jazz composition. 

Misha and Ayelet moved to back to New York for the completion of Ayelet’s training at JTS.  After graduating she took a position in New York at the West End Synagogue.  Misha graciously performed a fund raiser for BHC the summer of 2005.

Back to the story.  Edwin handed me the paper and asked, “What do you think of this?”  I grabbed the paper and opened it to the article.  There was no doubt as there was a picture of our friend. 


Ad for Misha Piatigorsky Jazz Trio

Ad for Misha Piatigorsky Jazz Trio

Misha’s Jazz concert, the last of a thirteen day tour, had begun an hour before at a club in Moscow.  We decided to make a dash for the club in the chance of catching Misha before he left. 

Finding our way around the subways became one of Edwin’s specialties but finding the building with the club was harder as the address was wrong (not uncommon at all!).  We decided to inquire in a hotel and sure enough the club was there. 

Misha and the other two members of his trio were in between sets.  He couldn’t believe his eyes when we appeared.  We were able to catch the second set of this excellent composer and warm, generous performer.  Misha played a beautiful composition entitled “Nachlaot” which he had composed during the year in Jerusalem.  Nachlaot is a lovely old Jerusalem neighborhood where the Piatigorskys and I myself had lived. 

Certainly Misha’s concert was one of the highlights of the trip.


Russian Composers

We toured the St. Petersburg Conservatory, a very important institution to Jewish composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  For many years Jews had been refused admission to any schools much less those of higher learning.  One Jews were allowed into the conservatory Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) who taught at there encouraged young Jewish composers such as Joseph Achron (1886-1943)and Joel Engel (1868-1927)to explore their own Jewish musical heritage for inspiration.  This period of openness gave support to the establishment of The St. Petersburg Jewish Folk Music Society in 1908 which collected, arranged and published Jewish Folk melodies.  Members of society also composed music using Jewish elements.  For more information and musical examples check out click on Song of the Month.

Statue of Rimsky-Korsakov

Statue of Rimsky-Korsakov




The streets of Moscow are filled with statues of famous Russian writers, musicians and politicians.  A stroll on any street might bring one to the house of Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) or Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953).

Moscow Scriabin's houseMoscow Prokofiev's house


2 Responses to “Russian Music Notes”

  1. Philip Peter Says:

    Hello, I welcomed your comments on your concert and opera experiences in Russia. Do you happen to have any information (or know who might have it) on a person with the surname Beggrov who taught piano with Leschetizky at the St. Petersburg Conservatory when it was founded by Rubenstein in 1862? My wife, Marina Iurievna Beggrova is a member of that family which dates back to the time when Peter the Great was westernizing Russia. The family included naval engineers and artists (Karl Petrovich Beggrov, Alexander Karlovitch Beggrov, Olga Fedorovna Beggrova-Gartman) and, apparently, a Beggrov who taught piano for the conservatory. Any help would be appreciated. Philip Peter

  2. Marlena Says:

    Sorry no ideas on that subject. Good luck.

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