Expedition to Brighton Beach with the Brooklyn Philharmonic

The Brooklyn Philharmonic has been reborn! 

In recent seasons, the orchestra that used to give concerts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) faded from view, as finances and the inability to retain a music director put an end to those concerts and reduced the organization to sending chamber ensembles around to schools, churches and other such venues.  But a core group of determined folks decided that Brooklyn should have a real orchestra again, and they asked Alan Pierson, a young conductor of growing reputation (and, full disclosure here, a friend of mine) to lead the revival as Artistic Director, and Richard Dare, a person from the corporate world without past music administration experience, as Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director.  Their idea was to eschew the expensive premises of BAM, at least for now, and to find alternative appropriate places around the borough to alternate orchestral concerts with chamber concerts in a systematic attempt to make the orchestra truly a part of the entire borough – to bring the music to the people, rather than ask all the people to come to BAM. (They will also have some Carnegie Hall engagements during the season, mainly as an accompaniment to other performers.)

After a few "preview" concerts in various venues, the first full-orchestra-in-concert program of the radically different kind of season they have planned took place Thursday night at the Millennium Theater, a converted old movie house, in Brighton Beach, the heart of what has come to be called "Little Odessa" because of the heavy concentration of immigrants from Russia who have settled in the area. 

To present a concert that would strongly appeal to the neighborhood, they decided to construct a program around the common thread of music composed for or used as part of Russian cartoons.  The Russian or Russian-American composers represented on the program were Gennady Gladkov ("The Bremen Musicians"), Dmitri Shostakovich ("The Silly Little Mouse"), Vyacheslav Artyomov ("Boy as a Boy"), Mieczyslaw Weinberg ("Vinni PUh Goes Visiting") and Lev "Ljova" Zhurbin ("Only Love"). 

Another theme they selected for this "relaunch" season was to play the major work that appeared on the orchestra's first concert in the 1850s – Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 (The Eroica) – but with the individual movements spread over the course of the season.  By happy coincidence, the first movement of the symphony had been partially used for soundtrack music by a Russian cartoon-maker, Akop Kirakosyan, for a film titled "Fatum", so it fit right into the program.  They played the entire movement, beginning the film part way through at the point that Mr. Kirakosyan had selected.

They projected the cartoons behind the orchestra, while suppressing the soundtrack in all but one case.  The orchestra, a foley artist, and the vocal soloists replaced the soundtracks with live performance of dialogue, songs, sound effects and music.  Conductor Pierson wore a headset for many of the cartoons with a signal to synchronize the performance to the films, and all of his conducting had to conform to the pace of the films, so at least in terms of tempo the circumstances did not allow him much interpretive freedom.  In the Beethoven this produced the odd result of a very swift-paced performance of a piece that is usually rendered much more heavily and dramatically, but on this occason it came across as swift and light-footed, matching the tempo of the film. That produced some incidental revelations about the shape of the piece that perhaps were not what Pierson would intend in a stand-alone performance.

So, what was the result of this experiment?  I would call it a great success.  The Millennium Theater is a huge place.  (The capacity sign I saw indicated more than 1400 seats.)  Even just 10 minutes before the performance began I was concerned the turnout would be embarrassingly small, but I was unaware of how many tickets had being sold (and of the likely bottleneck downstairs in the lobby), but by the time the concert began a few minutes late, the place was really packed, I would estimate more than 3/4 full, a great achievement considering the circumstances.  And this was not just any audience.  The great majority appeared to come from the neighborhood, chattering away in Russian with each other until the program began and, unfortunately, a few still chattering during it, reading subtitles and exclaiming over familiar images or music, as many of these cartoons were big hits in the Soviet Union where many in the audience were children.  There were even some persistent cell-phone picture takers and few disturbing cell-phone erruptions during the performance. This was the first orchestral concert I've tended in quite a while that did not feature an announcement to turn off cell phones.  (A lesson for next time?)

The one major exception to the mode of performance describe above wasthat of "Only Love," a new cartoon by Lev Polyakov (2008) whose composer, "Ljova', was present and sang during the film.  This was devised with the idea of live orchestral accompaniment, so the soundtrack was restricted to dialogue and sound effects and the orchestra was on a slightly looser tether in terms of tempo.

The vocal soloists, all very idiomatic and skilled vocal actors, included Alexander Gounko, Lyudmila Fesenko, Liudmila Joy, Leah Isabelle Kun, Masha Pruss, Alyssa Serebrenik, and Yelena Shmulenson, in addition, of course, to Ljova!

Conductor Pierson provided some narration in English, with simultaneous translation by a Russian interpreter.  The dialogue for the cartoons was all in Russian with subtitles.  During the first half, the subtitles were on the lower part of the screen, mainly obscured from view of the audience by the orchestra, so th person in the hall with the best access to actually reading them was – Alan Pierson!  But happily during the second half the subtitles were projected across the top of the screen.  Many in the audience didn't need the subtitles, and the combination of music, images, and the excellent vocal acting by the singers — most particularly young Leah Isabelle Kun, who provided the child voice in several cartoons and was the little heroine of the concert — made it possible to follow the simple story lines without being able to read.

How did the orchestra sound on this occasion?  Rather good for an assemblage that is just in the process of getting their act together.  I spotted a few familiar names and faces in the ensemble, indicating that many of these players are part of that large floating group of freelance musicians in the NYC metro area who can be assembled into a creditable orchestra on call.  (I saw a Mostly Mozart Orchestra face here or there, an American Symphony face, and although I don't attend NYC Ballet, I'll bet their orchestra made some contributions to this ensemble.  The former City Opera orchestra is pretty much at liberty, so there were probably some there as well.  The question will be whether over time a stable aggregation with a corporate sonic personality will emerge.  The best test of the players' abilities came with the most familiar music, the Beethoven, and they passed that test with flying colors, rendering a plausible performance at a swift pace.

Going to Brighton Beach was a bit of an expedition, but NYC's subway system makes it easy, if time consuming, for a Manhattanite.  You just need to plan out your trip carefully.  I arrived early enough to wander the neighborhood a bit, have a light dinner in a Russian cafe, and get home reasonably expeditiously.  (The Q train runs from Brighton Beach station across Brooklyn to Canal Street in Manhattan, and thence northwards through Times Square, so my total time in the subway, together with the short connection up to my home station of 72 & Broadway, was barely more than an hour.)  I hope the Brooklyn Phil plays the Millennium Theater again in future seasons.  I'd make the trip! 

There was a certain nostalgia attached, since my mother grew up in that area of Brooklyn, I was born there, and we continued to live there for two years until my father was hired by the Smithtown Central School District to teach math to the distant suburbanites.  One of my earliest, persistent memories of childhood is of sitting up in the stroller as my mother took me along with her to shop with the subway running overhead and the bustle of the stores.  So this was like a little homecoming for me.  A nice extra touch….  The audience's enthusiastic reception of the concert was echoed in my heart.

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