by Anthony Thomas
With this being the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution all credit to the Usher Hall for commemorating the earth shattering political event as part of their popular ‘Sunday afternoon Classics’ series.
Adorned with my hammer and sickle earring and red watch with its hammer and sickle hands – gifts from my own revolutionary admirer – your correspondent walked the three miles from home to the Lothian Road venue amid unseasonably glorious May sunshine excitedly anticipating the classical music feast in store.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not, given what Hamish Henderson would have described as the quintessential ‘Edimbourgeois’ audience, I was the only one suitably attired for this grand commemoration of socialist revolution. Everyone else seemed to enjoy the concert too if not the idea of the great revolutionary masses of St Petersburg rising up and throwing off centuries of Tsarist oppression.
The Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, under musical director Yuri Simonov, indulged such revolutionary fervor as there was with sparklingly diverse pieces from the distinguished Soviet era composers Dimitri Shostakovich, Sergei Rachmaninov and Sergei Prokofiev.
Shostakovich’s ‘Festival Overture’ [Opus 86] written in 1954 opened the concert joyously. Used, as the Usher Hall programme pointed out, as the theme for the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow [which the USA boycotted after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but Britain and most other Western nations did not] we were reminded that Shostakovich dedicated his Twelfth Symphony to Lenin and entitled it ‘The year 1917’. Shostakovich [1906-1975] from the revolutionary city of St Petersburg itself was a loyal communist [too loyal for many critics particularly during the Stalin years] even serving on the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. He is nonetheless considered one of classical music’s major composers of the 20th century.
Thereafter we had the concert’s centerpiece performance with the virtuoso pianist Freddy Kempf leading a glorious recital of Rachmaninoff’s monumentally challenging Piano Concerto No 3. Unlike the other two composers on the bill Rachmaninoff [1873-1943] was not a supporter of the Bolshevik Revolution. On the contrary, from a wealthy bourgeois Tsarist family, he fled Russia in 1917 initially for Scandinavia before settling down finally in the USA. His influences were unquestionably Russian however even though he remained an anti-communist in America until his death in 1943.
Prokofiev’s epic symphony ‘Romeo and Juliet’ – used in the BBC Series ‘The Apprentice’- rounded off the joyous afternoon. Like Rachmaninoff Sergei Prokofiev [1891-1953] also left Bolshevik Russia for the USA after October 1917. But unlike his older compatriot he was not unsympathetic to the Revolution and its aims. Rather, engulfed by wanderlust, he was keen to see the world and seek inspiration. He returned to the USSR in 1936 at the height of the US Depression. There he became an acclaimed Soviet citizen and through his work became perhaps the most popular composer of the 20th century. He died the same day as Joseph Stalin in 1953.
There is nothing quite like live classical music for invigorating the soul.
And the newly refurbished Usher Hall – with its extra leg room for six footers like me – provided a wondrous venue for the Moscow Philharmonic orchestra. An 80 piece orchestra full of strings, woodwind, brass and percussion to delight us with their masterpiece of harmonious, lyrically loud and at times enchantingly delicate music. And in a final moving touch conductor Yuri Simonov dedicated Rachmaninoff’s hauntingly sad Concerto No 4 – one of many encores – to the victims of last week’s Manchester bombing.
I am reminded thinking back then that the original People’s Festival in 1951 presented a classical music concert inside George Heriot’s school featuring the blind virtuoso pianist Martin Milligan and his recital of Beethoven’s best known work. Perhaps it’s time the People’s Festival extended its repertoire to include a classical concert soon? Just a revolutionary idea to finish with. Seems a fitting tribute to the ideas inherent in 1917.