This year’s vernal equinox will roll in with a spring tide of Russian classics performed by the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra at the Michigan Theater March 21. The concert will open with the Polovtsian Dances from Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor, an opera based upon a medieval text describing the struggle between Slavs and nomadic Eurasian warriors known as Kipchaks and Cumans; twelfth-century Russians called them Polovtsy.
The most recognizable air from this suite is the wistful Gliding Dance of the Maidens, which resurfaced in the late 1930s as the opening bars of the sugary pop tune “My Fantasy,” softly crooned by femalesingers working for Paul Whiteman and Artie Shaw. The melody achieved lasting popularity in 1953 as “Stranger in Paradise,” one of more than a dozen Borodin-derived numbers in the Broadway musical Kismet.
Borodin lived several lives at once as part-time composer, surgeon, research chemist, and progressive academic who in 1872 enabled women to begin enrolling in college-level medical courses. A dedicated feminist, he founded the School of Medicine for Women in St. Petersburg. Usually performed as an orchestral showpiece, Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances will be presented in their original splendor with the massed voices of the Pioneer, Huron, and Skyline high school choirs and the adult all-male chorus Measure for Measure. For your convenience, translations from the Russian will be electronically displayed above the performers.
Captioning will also be in use during Tchaikovsky’s ultra-programmatic instrumental fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet, in order to identify themes associated with Friar Laurence, the star-crossed lovers, and those endlessly bickering, brawling Montagues and Capulets. This rather torrid work was written when Tchaikovsky was still operating under the influence of Mily Balakirev, whose clique of “New Russian” composers, nicknamed The Mighty Handful, included Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Borodin. Like each of these men and Borodin in particular, Tchaikovsky specialized in attractive melodies that are easy to remember and hard to forget.
It is tempting to imagine leaving the supertitles on during Shostakovich’s Symphony No.10, which originated as sketches for a violin sonata in 1946 and was premiered in all its stormy glory following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. Of course nobody would ever attempt to caption a live performance of this staggeringly powerful work, for, like practically everything Shostakovich left for us to ponder, the 10th Symphony is essentially self-captioning. No need to display phrases like “Moscow Show Trials,” “Police State Insomnia,” “Gulag Nights,” or “Death of a Dictator.” Shostakovich, whose encoded initials recur throughout the symphony with increasing defiance until the orchestra fairly howls his name, clearly stated on more than one occasion that, when all is said and done, the public will have to sort it out for themselves.