The Brooklyn Philharmonic’s new Music Director, Alan Pierson, has been clear about his desire to make the ensemble “Brooklyn’s orchestra” and to do so by making music in neighborhoods throughout the borough. More than a traveling show, the orchestra will be making music that has something to say to the culture and history of each neighborhood. It’s an ambitious concept, fulfilled by Pierson’s taste and skill and the complete support he’s receiving from the newly-revived institution. The plan bore its first welcome fruit in front of a sizable crowd at the Millennium Theater in Brighton Beach on November 3, as the ensemble, singers, and foley artist Ian M. Colletti played fine, mostly Russian music that was primarily composed as soundtracks for cartoons.
Orchestras playing live accompaniment to films is not a new practice, but the point is usually to achieve a marketing and box-office coup. Pierson’s program was far more musically ambitious than most, with the built-in and brilliant advantage that animated films have long been an important part of Soviet and Russian film culture, eliciting soundtracks from some of the best Russian composers of the 20th century. The talented singers, including two astonishing and very young girls, Leah Isabella Kun and Alyssa Serebrenik, performed all the animated characters’ vocals live, and that combined with the excellent cartoons and skillful playing from the orchestra made the evening dynamic and tremendous fun.
Any concession to pure popularity was Gennady Gladkov’s music to the relatively well-known “The Bremen Musicians,” a 1969 cartoon based on the Brothers Grimm tale of four animals who leave their masters to become musicians. Gladkov’s music is classically structured and is full of idiomatic stretches of Beatles-esque rock, nothing remarkable to a New Yorker steeped in Leonard Bernstein, but in the original cultural context, something exuberantly daring. The Beatles were the essence of Western subversion when Gladkov wrote the music, and the importance and connection to that origin was clear in how familiar much of the audience was with it, and how charmed they were to hear it and sing and clap along with it.
There were rarities. Mieczyslaw Weinberg is an obscure composer, more in the news recently for a production of his Holocaust opera, The Passenger. His music for “Vinni Puh Goes Visiting,” an ersatz Soviet version of the story of Winnie the Pooh visiting Rabbit, and eating so much that he can’t fit back through the door, is smart, lively, and light-hearted, original but as appropriate to the “Russian” bear as Harold Fraser-Simson’s music was to A. A. Milne’s authentic Pooh. Lev Zhurbin, who arranged most of the music in the concert and contributed his own soundtrack to one of the cartoons, gave a blusteringly innocent characterization to Vinni, his voice seeming to come out of the animal’s eternally hungry belly. Vyacheslav Artyomov wrote music for the cartoon “Boy as a Boy,” a mesmerizing and beautifully drawn representation of a boy’s imagination coming to life. The music flows, stream-of-consciousness style, through concentrated, substantial episodes of lush impressionism, slinky jazz, and searching introspection. Zhurbin’s own score for the recent political satire “Only Love” is cartoon music in the classical style, full of rapid, dazzling shifts that juxtapose pithy, muscular bits of finely crafted music. It’s cheeky but not tongue-in-cheek.
The big names on the program were Shostakovich and Beethoven. Along with his symphonies, string quartets, and operas, the Russian wrote great film scores, including the gorgeous, evocative music for “The Silly Little Mouse,” a 1939 cartoon about a mouse that refuses to sleep, despite the ministrations of the town animals and even the cat who kidnaps him. Beethoven didn’t write soundtracks, but Akop Kirakosyan set his cartoon “Fatum (Doom),” a weirdly clever story of a gang of caterpillar bank robbers and the tortoise sheriff who barely lifts a foot to bring them in, to the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica.” Playing a single movement comes dangerously close to classical Top 40 hits, but it worked; the end of the cartoon wrapped up the music neatly, and the orchestra will play the remaining movements through their series of concerts this season, a programmatic connection to their very first concert, in 1857, when they played the “Eroica.”
Pierson took the movement at an extremely fast tempo, and it was exhilarating. This was the biggest technical challenge for the orchestra, which played impressively well the entire evening, and except for two brief moments when the violins threatened to spin away from the stage, like a clown car careering at the edge of a precipice, they carved their way confidently through the score. Their clarity, precision, and musicality were impressive all evening—especially in the dry and distant acoustic of the theater—and they changed colors to produce the right sound for each of the broad variety of moods and moments. This was a confident and tremendously smart performance and program. Intelligence and fun are too rarely combined in classical music performances, and easily revealing their natural affinity makes the Brooklyn Philharmonic one of the most exciting orchestras in the country.
GEORGE GRELLA is the publisher of the Big City Blog and writes frequently about music for the Rail, where he covers the Brooklyn Philharmonic beat.