Saxophonist Kenneth Radnofsky of the New England Conservatory faculty performs a program of works by Edward Elgar and Russian composers on February 18. Writing a few days after the death of his colleague, former Boston Symphony Orchestra associate principal bassoonist Matthew Ruggiero, Radnofsky offers these thoughts on his program.
This concert is dedicated to the memory of friend and colleague, artist bassoonist, teacher, and founder of the Boston Woodwind Society, Matthew Ruggiero, who died on February 1, 2013. I had just succeeded him as President of the Society at our January, 27, 2013 meeting; at the end of the meeting Matt announced he was very ill, and thanked us for our dedication to the Society. He had not wanted any of us to know of his illness. He wanted us to help him because we shared his beliefs. And we do, and have established a Matthew Ruggiero Fund to help talented young woodwind players through the Boston Woodwind Society. His obituary may be seen here.
While this was originally intended as an All-Russian program, I just could not play my next program without referencing Matthew Ruggiero's influence, which no doubt many others will also be doing. Matt was a member of the Boston Symphony the first time I played, over thirty-five years ago. I remember the event well and have a photograph with both of us in it, from that day. He was a gentle and kind person, always smiling and friendly, curious and intelligent, and introduced me to Edward Elgar's Romance—a work that I fell in love with later in my career, and played for the first time last year here at Jordan Hall.
When I told Matt I had learned it and was programming it, he said, "It is our only piece! [for bassoon]; and you are going to take it for the saxophone." The integrity of the work itself, as well as its composer (also a bassoonist!), simply reminds me of Matt, and it is played in his honor, accompanied by the great "romantic" songs of Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff, inspired by soprano Nina Koshetz (1891–1965). Also on tonight’s program is Rachmaninoff’s famous Sonata, Op. 19, written for Russian cellist Anatoliy Brandukov (1859–1930), who inspired works by both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, and gave the premiere with the composer at the piano.
The Russian Revolution drove artists and flocks of humanity away from Russia in 1917. And perhaps those were the lucky ones. Three—Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and soprano Nina Koshetz—left for America soon thereafter.
Sergey Rachmaninoff, the already legendary pianist-composer, who defined Romanticism of the era, and who taught the Czar’s children, had his family estate burned by the Bolsheviks, with his piano thrown out the second floor window, literally fleeing for his life.
Sergei Prokofiev left in 1918. After reenrolling in the St. Petersburg Conservatory to avoid conscription into military service, he sought to leave and was granted permission by the government. A friend in the government, sympathetic to his desire to leave as well as his music, viewed him (as he perhaps did himself) as the more experimental/revolutionary musician he was, at least compared to Rachmaninoff, and although telling Prokofiev that they preferred he stay, said the government would let him go. And in that light, Prokofiev arrived in America.
Both Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff were extremely productive as performers, although Rachmaninoff was performing more than composing, to make ends meet. Prokofiev immediately began Overture on Hebrew Themes, commissioned by a New York Klezmer group, as well as writing his opera The Love for Three Oranges for the Chicago Opera, with and for soprano Nina Koshetz, the third émigré, who had a brief affair with Rachmaninoff in Russia several years before, and to whom the Six Romantic Songs, Op. 38 (one of which is heard tonight) were written.
Prokofiev in fact helped arrange her visa, an introduction to his own American managers, and referred to her in letters with great fondness, and referenced Rachmaninoff in a friendly way, although according to some, they were in a competitive professional atmosphere in the U.S. Prokofiev dedicated his own set of Five Melodies without Words to Koshetz, written in America in 1920, and heard tonight. Koshetz certainly may be described as a "muse" in one form or another, to both men. Both accompanied her in recitals during that time.
Though little is written about the two composers’ respect for each other, and whose music might be considered antithetical by some as old school vs. modernist, I am comforted to see that Prokofiev, who was less appreciated for his interpretations of others' works, recorded one of the Rachmaninoff's Preludes for piano roll in 1919, in America.
The Rachmaninoff Sonata was written in Russia, for equal instrumental partners, cello and piano, and is a masterwork, heard in this case for saxophone and piano. It was overshadowed at the time by the Second Piano Concerto, premiered just two months earlier, but it stands as the most important work by Rachmaninoff for an instrument other than piano.
Composer/choral conductor Pavel Cheshnokov did not emigrate; and while he continued to compose, his prolific output of church music came to an almost complete stop following the Russian Revolution. He continued to write secular works and teach at the Moscow Conservatory, until the Soviets destroyed the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (where he had been choirmaster) in 1933, to erect a Soviet skyscraper. Cheshnokov reportedly stopped writing music altogether, dying in 1944.