February 5, 2024

1943. Moscow Hosts Concert of American Music

"Rhapsody in Red"
"The statue of a ballerina, holding a hammer and sickle, could be seen atop the building at No. 17 in this 1943 photo" (source)
 From Newsweek, July 19, 1943, pp. 79-80:

Rhapsody in Red

On the Fourth of July Moscow helped celebrate our Independence Day with a gala concert of American music. Newsweek and CBS correspondent, Bill Downs, attended, and the following is his report of the historical event:

Moscow critics are trying to decide whether the first concert of all-American music in the history of the Soviet Union had greater musical or political significance. The political facet was distinguished through the attendance of Maxim Litvinoff, United States Ambassador William H. Standley, and Sir Archibald Clark Kerr, the British envoy. Musically, the concert was distinguished for the first public playing by a Russian orchestra of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" Also, Shostakovich arranged "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" in a way that was surprisingly straight, simple, and tuneful for all his modernism, but exceedingly short.

Moscow's staid Conservatorium—which represents to the Russian capital what Queen's Hall meant to London and what Carnegie Hall means to New York—had one of its biggest audiences of the war. But it was not a long-haired crowd. There were a lot of youngsters—Russian versions of the hepcat, who looked about the same as American jitterbugs. Obviously, this was the first time many had attended the Conservatorium. Alexander Tsfasman, who leads the best-known band, has as faithful a following as any swing master in America. Incidentally, "swing" has not yet entered Russia's musical vocabulary. But this can be expected as a musical postwar development, for the Soviet citizen dotes on American dance tunes.

It was an expectant audience when Nathan Rachlin walked to the podium. Rachlin, a popular conductor, is considered new school. However, his style is exceedingly distracting. His conducting nears caricature, with great shakings of the head, gruntings and groanings audible in the first half-dozen rows of the audience, and heroic posturings which one American defined as "University of Southern California cheer-leading school of conducting."

The musical commentator of the evening announced the first piece as Roy Harris's "When Johnny Comes Marching Home—With Victory." That "With Victory" is a good indication of how the ordinary Russian is thinking these days. The State Symphony Orchestra swung bravely into the Harris composition, but it soon became evident that his dissonances and difficult rhythms made it more of a struggle than a pleasure. The audience was a little puzzled but applauded vigorously, and the commentator next announced three American folk songs, whereafter on walked the dark and buxom Natalia Schpiller.

She is one of Russia's best sopranos, and her high and flexible voice proceeded to bring down the house with excellent interpretations of "Weeping, Sad, and Lonely" and “Old Folks at Home." The Russian translations were exceedingly good. The mood of the Negro spirituals is easily understandable and adaptable to Russian artists and audiences, whose most-loved folk song is the "Volga Boatmen." The last "folk song" turned out to be the last war waltz, "Till We Meet Again," but no one cared particularly whether it was a folk song or not for the arrangement and Schpiller's singing left the audience shouting for more. 

The first half of the program was completed by the orchestra's playing Samuel Barber's "Overture to the School for Scandal." Now everyone was much more at home. Barber's phrasing is surprisingly like Shostakovich's—and anything approaching him is OK with the Russian audiences.

Jazzhounds in the audience sat up expectantly after intermission, for Tzfasman's band moved in among the regular symphony with clarinets and saxophones. They probably were the first saxophones ever played in the Conservatorium, The youngsters gave loud cheers and applause when Tzfasman himself appeared to play the piano part. The "Rhapsody" was all in all worthily performed with a not unpleasant slowing down in many parts, giving Rachlin's interpretation of Gershwin's moodiness and contrasting with the sophisticated polish usually applied in America.

Then came the Shostakovich arrangement of "When Johnny," etc., followed by an entirely too operatic and formal presentation of Kern's "Ol' Man River" by the opera baritone Panteleimon Nortsoff. The Soviet audience, generally familiar with Robeson's singing of the riparian epic, didn't like it much. But the first playing of Walter Piston's ballet suite "The Incredible Flutist" drew almost as much applause as the "Rhapsody," although there were murmurs from some youngsters who expected to hear all jazz.

All in all, American music stood the test of a critical Russian audience who turned out on America's Independence Day to hear the latest developments in musical culture from the United States.