It was practically an all Russian evening, from the guest conductor, Vassily Sinaisky (who never used a baton), to composers Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) and Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), to the vocalists, guest soprano, Dina Kuznetsova, and tenor, Sergey Semishkur.
Other nations represented on the platform, besides Americans who are members of the Choral Arts Society of Washington, the NSO, and Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), were guest tenor, Elchin Azizov from Azerbaijan, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) of Austria.
Beginning the program was NSO's first performance of Borodin's Overture to Prince Igor, which began solemnly enough but soon gave way to vigorous double bass, building to a climax in a piece whose authorship is uncertain, according to the program. (By day, Borodin was a professor of chemistry who had little time for composition, but around-the-clock he was an advocate of women's rights, founding the School of Medicine for Women in St. Petersburg.)
A NSO star, Loren Kitt, splendidly played the familiar but always welcome, Mozart's Concerto in A major for Clarinet and Orchestra, K. 622, in an almost nonchalant fashion, totally unruffled by the audience in front of him, and cleaning his instrument before he began, while the orchestra played on behind him.
The best composition of the night belonged to the second half of the program and Rachmaninoff's interpretation of Poe's The Bells: sleigh bells, wedding bells, alarm bells, and mournful bells, following life's trajectory, from childhood to adulthood to the grave, Poe's words augmented by those of Russian poet, Konstantin Balmont (1867-1942) as in "The Silver Sleigh Bells":
And their dreaming is a gleaming that a perfumed air exhales,
And their thoughts are but a shining,
And a luminous divining
Of the singing and the ringing, that a dreamless peace foretells.
From "The Mellow Wedding Bells":
Hear the mellow wedding bells,
What a world of tender passion their melodious voice foretells!
From "The Loud Alarum Bells":
Yet we know
By the booming and the clanging,
By the roaring and the twanging,
How the danger falls and rises like the tides that ebb and flow
From "The Mournful Iron Bells":
What a world of desolation in their iron utterance dwells!
And we tremble at our doom,
As we think upon the tomb,
Glad endeavour quenched for ever in the silence and the gloom.
The beauty of The Bells was magnified by the voices of Choral Arts Society (under the direction of Scott Tucker and composed of 130 members, a few more women than men, my count) and the guests performers named above, so eloquent and professional in their deliveries, one could think of no better singers to be hired for such an occasion.
(Have you ever heard of the "celesta," one of three keyboards played in Bells? Neither has Dorling-Kindersley, Limited, which published the Complete Classical Music Guide (2012) or David Pogue and Scott Speck, authors of Classical Music for Dummies (1997), who all omit the instrument defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as "a keyboard and metal plates struck by hammers (! (editor's addition)) that produce bell-like tones." To the untrained, it makes sounds like one might imagine a grownup's toy piano would. Delightful! What a nice girl's name to bestow. Akin to "celestial.")
Who would have thought the night would become so glorious, and to think I just picked the performance for my #1 love, Rachmaninoff!
(Update: At a later event I met a Russian scholar who told me if Poe were any other nationality besides American, he thought Poe would have been Russian, based on Poe's temperament. This was a man who said he read Poe's complete works every summer when he visited his grandmother.)
(Questions: Where were the floral arrangements usually found at the end of the aisles at the stage, and why were the first two rows of seats kept empty of concertgoers?)
What: Borodin, Mozart, Poe, and Rachmaninoff
When: Tonight, 8 p.m.
Where: John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.
Admission: Tickets start at $10.
Duration: About two hours with one 15 minute intermission
For more information: 202-467-4600