Arts & Events

East Bay Symphony’s ‘Russian Easter Overture’

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Thursday April 16, 2009 - 06:47:00 PM
Sara Beuchner.
Sara Beuchner.

The Oakland East Bay Symphony is performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, featuring pianist Sara Buechner, and Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Petroushka, this Friday night at the Paramount Theatre with musical director Michael Morgan conducting.  

The program also features contemporary composer Mark Lanz Weiser’s Four Scenes from The Story of Tocatta and Fugue and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture, from 1888. 

Rimsky-Korsakov said of his work: “This legendary and heathen side of the holiday, this transition from the gloomy and mysterious evening of Passion Sunday to the unbridled pagan-religious merrymaking on the morn of Easter Sunday, is what I was eager to produce in my Overture.” 

Rimsky-Korsakov used in his overture liturgical themes from the first published music in Russia, the Obikhod (1772), a collection of Orthodox Church canticles.  

“The capering and leaping of the biblical King David before the Ark, do they not give an expression to the mood of the idol-worshipper’s dance?” he said. “Surely the Russian Orthodox Obikhod is instrumental dance music of the church, is it not? And do not the waving beards of the priests and sextons clad in white vestments and surplices ... transport the imagination to pagan times?”  

Or, as Morgan said of the Paramount program: “It’s Spring—Celebrate!”  

The concert, opening with Russian Easter Overture, coincides with Good Friday of Holy Week in the Eastern Orthodox calendar. 

The four scenes of the “burlesque” of Petroushka, from the 1947 version, rescored by the composer for smaller orchestra, follow the Rimsky-Korsakov overture. The original, a triumph of polytonality and syncopation, was written in 1911. 

Stravinsky recalled that, while working on sketches for what would, three years later, become The Rite of Spring, “I wanted to refresh myself by composing an orchestral piece in which the piano would play the most important part ... I had in mind the distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios. The orchestra in turn retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts. The outcome is a terrific noise which reaches its climax and ends ends in the sorrowful and querulous collapse of the poor puppet.”  

When Vaslav Nijinsky premiered the role, Sarah Bernhardt reportedly pronounced herself afraid, “Because I have just seen the greatest actor in the world!” 

(Petroushka replaced on the program the earlier-announced Rite of Spring, which requires a bigger orchestra.) 

Weiser has written an opera, Where Angels Fear to Tread, from the E.M. Forster novel; a setting for W.B. Yeats’ two character one-act play, Purgatory; and Rendezvous of Light, a one-woman show about Emily Dickinson. Four Scenes from The Story of Tocatta and Fugue is taken from the score for Neal Thibedeau’s film thriller of that title. The four scenes are scored for strings.  

“Though each scene is a cue from the film,” Weiser said, “I don’t think it would be necessary to describe what’s happening in the movie when they are being played—hopefully, they can stand on their own as abstracts. In performance, they proceed one to the next without much pause, and are titled ‘Moons,’ ‘Body,’ ‘Passacaglia’ and ‘Taxi Ride.’”  

Morgan has compared it, as a film score for strings, to Bernard Hermann’s score for Hitchcock’s Psycho—“but without the insanity.” 

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, written after his second but published first, was possibly introduced in 1795 at Beethoven’s first Vienna appearance as both composer and pianist, organized by his teacher—though the piece is often said to be inspired by Mozart’s concerti. Piano soloist Buechner is known for her interpretations of Mozart, of Ferruccio Busoni’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” of George Gershwin and of Hermann’s piano concerti. She has more than 100 concerti in her repertoire. 



Presented by the Oakland East Bay Symphony at 8 p.m. Friday at the Paramount Theater, 2025 Broadway, Oakland. 444-0841.