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Quintets From Army Band, Russian Orchestra Perform Royal Music

By Ian Graham
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 20, 2009 – As a group of leading diplomats, military officials and scholars made its way into the Russian Embassy here March 17, none of them quite knew what to expect. They had been invited to see a joint performance by brass quintets from the U.S. Army Band and the Russian National Orchestra.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
The U.S. Army Band's brass quintet performs for a group of leading diplomats, military officials and scholars at the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., March 17, 2009. They were joined by the brass quintet from the Russian National Orchestra. U.S. Army photo
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

That evening, amid a collection of traditional Russian pieces, the two quintets were to perform music from the private collections of Czars Alexander III and Nicholas II, much of which is believed to have been played only in the private company of the Russian royal family and possibly the czar’s entourage.

For a musician, said Col. Thomas Rotondi, commander of the Army Band, it’s incredibly exciting to think of hearing music that hasn’t been played in more than 100 years.

“Anybody can go to the Library of Congress and view the sheet music, but nobody can hear it,” he said. “The exciting thing about this, from a musician’s perspective, is that you’re bringing art back to life.”

The Library of Congress bought the original manuscripts in the early 1930s, when the library was trying to expand its foreign holdings.

The library’s full Russian Imperial Collection contains books, jewelry, religious artifacts and artwork from five of the czar’s palaces in St. Petersburg, in addition to the musical manuscripts.

Kevin LaVine of the Library of Congress’s music division said the beauty of the manuscripts is that they provide a look at the cultural life of the Russian royal family in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The artwork on the manuscripts represents the artwork that was popular at the time, and the music, which was popular among Russian aristocrats, even hints at some of the royal family’s private hobbies.

“You see a lot of piano solos, or piano and vocal duets,” Lavine said. “So these were likely arrangements made for the imperial family to perform at home.”

The music also represents aspects of the czarist Russian military; some of the pieces are military marches. One of the more interesting books, LaVine said, is a collection of infantry calls, marches and signals, akin to bugle calls still used in modern militaries.

Vladislav Lavrik, principal trumpet player for the Russian National Orchestra, said the concert is a very special occasion for him because the music represents such a significant time in Russia’s history.

“This is part of our culture,” he said. “It’s an honor to get to be the first people to play it for an audience. It means a lot to me.”

Sgt. Maj. Dennis Edelbrock, a trumpeter in the Army Band quintet, said it was a great pleasure to play with members of the Russian National Orchestra, which recently was ranked No. 15 of the top 20 orchestras in the world by Gramophone, a British music magazine.

“It was quite a treat to take part in this,” he said. “It’s been a lot of hard work in a short time, but those guys are pros and I feel good about how we played.”

The bands met only the day before at Brucker Hall on Fort Myer, Va., to rehearse their collaborative pieces and get to know each other. But within minutes of meeting, the two groups were playing as if they’d had weeks of practice time, despite any language barriers.

“Those Army guys, they’re very professional,” Lavrik said.

Sergey I. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, opened the concert with a quick introduction of the groups and the international friendship the joint performance represents. He said the importance of the night was not only to hear good music, but also to take a lesson in history.

“These musicians are providing for us not only music, but they share something with us that isn’t known, even by those who closely follow and study the evolution of music,” he said.

The ambassador added that the tone of relations between America and Russia is changing, and that joint efforts like this concert help to establish that tone.

Blair A. Ruble, director of the Kennan Institute, which focuses on Russian studies, said the concert illustrates the strengths of both nations and the power they have when cooperating.

“Tonight shows the capacity of Russia and the United States, when working together, to bring beauty to the world,” Ruble said. “This is not a symbolic ‘new start.’ This is our example of what things have become: a normal relationship. If we should celebrate anything tonight, we should celebrate how normal things have become between us.”

A joint ensemble opened with “Quintet,” a piece by Russian composer Alexander A. Aliabev. Aliabev was a rising star in Russian music when a gambling dispute led him allegedly to kill a man.

Both full quintets joined on “Suite from the Czar’s Library,” an arrangement of selections from the Library of Congress’s collection, and “Rossiya,” a musical glimpse at the many facets of Russian culture, from aristocrats and city life to poor farmers in the Ukraine by Anton Rubinstein.

“That piece, it represents so much about Russia,” Lavrik said. “As a Russian, you feel so connected to that music, because it’s about you and your family and your history.”

The bands concluded the night with encores of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” and a salsa rendition of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff’s famous “Flight of the Bumblebee.”

Both featured virtuosic solos by Army Band trombonist Sgt. 1st Class Harry Watters, who gave “Bumblebee” -- a song made famous by its adaptation for trumpet in the “Green Hornet” TV theme song -- a new tone with his fluid trombone runs.

After the concert, the members of both bands are ready to continue their collaboration. There has been some talk of bringing the joint performance back to Moscow, said Mary Ann Allin, an American liaison for the Russian National Orchestra and the organizer of the joint concert.

“We’d like to support this partnership; it’s really fantastic,” Rotondi said. “To have two countries come together to perform works like this, it’s the best way to do it. This is a great event to bring these two communities together.”

As to whether Edelbrock is ready to give it another go, he said he needs to sleep on it after two whirlwind days of long rehearsals.

“Not tonight,” he laughed. “I’m ready to go to bed.”

(Ian Graham is a staff writer for the Pentagram newspaper.)

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