What it Means to be Russian: ‘Russian Connections’ at PA

Throughout its history, Russia has survived dark and desolate times; periods of civil unrest, prolonged poverty, and famine have plagued the country. However, spirited Russian music has prevailed. This inspiring music resounded Sunday afternoon throughout the Timken Room when the program “Russian Connections” made its debut at Phillips Academy. Featuring soprano Galina Nikonovskaia , violinist Vera Rubin, and pianists Laura Teplitsky and Alia Mavroforos, the program exemplified the Russian people’s suffering as well as their hope. “Russian Connections” began quietly with “Prelude for the Left Hand Alone” by Alexander Scriabin, a piano piece written only for the left hand. This piece displayed Teplitsky’s skill as her hand lightly danced up and down the keyboard with little change in dynamics. Audience members sat passively disenchanted with the mechanical nature and the lack of feeling that Teplitsky displayed. The addition of Mavroforos to the piano duet “Sketches” by Valeri Gavrillin gave the room a sudden burst of vibrancy and life. The first section, “Driving the Toika,” celebrated the joys of being Russian and the hope that has pulled the nation’s people through many dark times. However, their troubles were addressed in the second section, “Waltz,” when an angry sadness permeated the piece with its use of arpeggios. Even more tumultuous than the previous section, Tarantella ended the piece with an odd, haunting chord. In contrast to the depressing discord of the previous piece was the piano and violin duet “Meditation” by Piotr Tchaikovsky, was a quick and light-hearted selection. With a circus-like feel, the piece’s dynamics rose and fell like the heartbeat and lifeblood of the Russian people. Remaining in the tonic and dominant throughout, the final trill of the violin was a familiar sound. Next, a medley of songs for soprano voice and piano was introduced with “Oh, never sing to me again” by Sergei Rachmanioff. In this selection, Nikonovskaia showcased her magnificently high range and easy vibrato as she soared from one note to another and toldof her sadness at leaving Georgia. Moving into “How fair a spot” by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Nikonovskaia was so overcome with emotion that her breaths between phrases were audible. Although arguably distracting from the overall effect of the piece, the feeling of longing that Nikonovskaia created was exactly what was needed to make this beautiful song come alive. The third vocal piece, “Before my window” by Sergei Rachmaninoff, was the only plot-driven song, telling of a springtime wedding with a bride dressed all in white. Finally ending in a loud chord comparable to the ringing of bells, the piece was wonderfully uplifting. Continuing the happy nature of “Before my window,” “Spring Waters,” also by Sergei Rachmaninoff, was similarly upbeat and happy. Nikonovskaia sang it with a blissful quality; a joy that washed out over the audience and lasted through the long intermission which ensued. Following intermission, the guests performed “Sonata for Violin and Piano” by Sergei Prokofiev. Playful and carefree and then urgent and frightening, “Moderato,” the first section, opened the piece with a barrage of different emotions finally culminating in a loud crashing chord, laced with chaos. With a stress not present in any of the previous music, the second movement, “Scherzo presto,” brought Russian suffering into perspective and called up images of hunger and poverty with each disgustingly sour note. After a standing ovation, the pianists played “Melody” by Tchaikovsky. It was slow and uneventful, telling nothing of hope, happiness, suffering or sadness.