Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Rimsky-Korsakov in America, Scheherazade, the Sea, and West Virginia

Lots to weave together here in this entry. Here we go. I was a violinist in the Omaha Area Youth Orchestra in 1982. Our Music Director, David Hagy, had set the upcoming season's music on the stand before our first rehearsal. The morning of our first rehearsal, I took my seat (3rd chair, First Violins) and opened the folder to see what pieces we were playing.

Fanfare for Brass and Percussion - Erb
Academic Festival Overture - Brahms
Adagio for Strings - Barber
Suite for Chamber Orchestra - Stravinsky
Star Wars Medley - Williams
Scheherazade - Rimsky-Korsakov

As I looked through the music, I'm sure my jaw hit the floor. There were so many notes to play! Fast notes, high notes.....endlessly mashed up on every page. It was going to be a long season I thought...learning to play all of these notes. I wondered if Mr. Hagy has lost his mind??? These were hard pieces...and the mother-ship was Scheherazade. It was like a book on the stand. Sure, we were a pretty good youth orchestra, but surely this piece was too big for us to play. I went home feeling pretty overwhelmed.

Rimsky-Korsakov composed Scheherazade in 1888. It is a symphonic suite based on the Tale of One Thousand and One Nights, or The Arabian Nights. It is one of the most well known classical works of all time. And it's one of the best. Throughout history, composers, songwriters, painters, and writers have sought to capture the natural world in their works. Scheherazade is a wonderful example of art capturing the sound, feeling, and sensation of the ocean. The opening statement of the work is a short chord passage of brass and woodwinds, followed by that iconic solo violin which then leads to the rolling cello and bass line that brings the sea to life musically. Layered on top are such delicious chords in the brass. It really is amazing, and I think it's one of the best musical representations of the sea ever written. How did he do this?

In 1862, a young Rimsky-Korsakov served as a midshipman in the Russian Navy aboard the vessel "Almaz". He entered the Naval College in 1856, where his interest in music was allowed to flourish. But upon graduation in 1862, he was forced to put music on hold. His ship sailed on November 2, 1862 on a voyage that would last almost three years. As I learned in a biography of Rimsky-Korsakof by M. Montague-Nathan (1917), "As may well be imagined, the long foreign cruise contributed very little to Rimsky-Korsakof's musical development, though as has been conjectured by more than one writer, the wonderful tonal pictures of the sea, painted by him in such works as "Sadko" and "Scheherazade," were undoubtedly inspired by impressions gained afloat."

I worked very hard to learn all of the notes for our 1982 concert. Each rehearsal was unrelenting. We practiced small segments over and over. Month after month went by without any sense of the "whole." It was pretty frustrating and as we came close to our Spring tour, it seemed like we were in for a disaster! We had raised enough money to take a tour to the East Coast...Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and New York City, and then home for our triumphant final concert at the Orpheum Theater in Omaha. I was excited about the trip, but terrified about playing Scheherazade.

In October 1863, the Almaz docked in New York Harbor. During his time in America, Rimsky-Kosakov saw two operas; "Faust"(Gounod) and "Robert" (Meyerbeer). He also went to see Niagara Falls. Perhaps of greater historical importance though, the Russian Fleet was playing a role in the Civil War that was raging all around him. Here is a wonderful article by C. Douglas Kroll that was published in 2013 in Russia Beyond the Headlines:


Back to 1982...the Omaha Area Youth Orchestra embarked on it's tour in June. Our first stop was at Drake University in Des Moines, IA on June 9th to be exact. This was our first performance and we were all very nervous. We had not played the entire concert straight through to this point. I still had no idea how and if we could do it! Maestro Hagy was very wise though, and he had prepared us much more than any of us knew. From the downbeat of the Brahms, we were off and running, and we survived even the Scheherazade. I'm not going to lie, it was a bumpy ride. There were plenty of mistakes and missed turns. But we made it through and it gave us confidence that we cold pull this off. The next night in Indianapolis, we performed at Butler University. This performance was much better than the previous night. Scheherazade was still shaky, but it was beginning to take shape.
We left Indy the next day and drove to Morgantown, West Virginia for a performance at Fairmont State College. Compared to Drake and Butler, Fairmont seemed far less sophisticated. Our performance was in a cafeteria...at least that's the way I remember it all these years later. By this point, we were all pretty tired, and the thought of getting psyched up to play in a mostly empty cafeteria did not seem like much fun. But we set up and prepared to play. When it was time for the concert, a strange thing happened. People began to fill up the seats. It seemed like the entire town had come. It was standing room only. I remember the audience was almost close enough for me to touch with my bow...they were right on top of us. And they were ALIVE and EXCITED. Coal miners, bankers, farmers, professors, their families...it was quite an eclectic audience. And from that point on, when Maestro Hagy gave the downbeat, we were a different orchestra. I came alive as a musician that evening. I wasn't over-thinking. I was just playing...trusting myself and my stand partner...the entire orchestra for that matter really came to life. And something truly magical happened in the Scheherazade. Not only did we hit the right notes, we brought the sea to life....we made music. I will always remember stealing a glance to my right to see an older gentleman sitting right across from me towards the end of the piece when we return to the glorious "sea theme"... it's a triumphant moment and we were blowing the roof off the place...and he had a look on his face that was priceless...his mouth had dropped open and his eyes were as wide as saucers. I think my face looked the same way. The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I could feel tears forming in my eyes. It was a powerful experience that has never left me. That's the power of music.
We played well the rest of the tour, and our final concert back home in Omaha at the Orpheum was also a huge success. I will never forget this concert tour nor the experiences...both high and low...of bringing such an epic work as Scheherazade to life.

And of course after his service in the Russian Navy was completed, Rimsky-Korsakov returned to music and became a famous composer. The article above indicates the Flight of the Bumblebee was also born as a result of his experience at sea.

Here is a great recording of Scheherazade. Thee are many to choose from, but this is as solid as they come.

And here is a fun recording of a jazzy version of Scheherazade courtesy of guitar virtuoso, Frank Vignola. I saw him play this at the Folly Theater a few years ago and it was awesome!

No comments:

Post a Comment