A Tale of Two Gennadys
by Nancy Wight
Gennady Zut, balalaika, and Gennady Sergienko, domra, were soloists with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Chicago's Orchestra Hall for four performances in mid-January. Under conductor Sir Mark Elder, they performed "Musical Pictures," excerpts from Rimsky- Korsakov's The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya. This wonderful opera, with a somewhat unwieldy title, is rarely performed in the United States.
The "Musical Pictures" suite was arranged by Rimsky-Korsakov's son-in-law Maximilian Steinberg. Kudos go to the British Sir Mark, from the Halle Orchestra in Manchester, England, for using folk instruments. Rimsky-Korsakov actually composed parts for folk instruments, but Zut reports that even in Russia they were never used as indicated in the score. Music directors have used violins instead. The only performance in New York of Invisible City that I know of was several years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. On the podium was the renowned conductor, Valery Gergiev, who also did not use the folk instrumentation, to my keen disappointment.
A big influence on Rimsky-Korsakov was Richard Wagner, and The Invisible City is sometimes referred to as the Russian Parsifal. There are echoes of Russian folk music, Musorgsky, and even Mahler. Rimsky Korsakov's 14th and penultimate opera is arguably his best work, although not part of the standard repertoire today. The plot is a convoluted one taken from Russian folklore. It concerns two lovers, the Maiden Fevroniya, abducted by the Tatars, and Prince Vsevolod, who is killed by them in battle. Rimsky-Korsakov, a master of orchestral color and tone-painting, also added a complement of bells, glockenspiel, and celesta in addition to regular symphonic instruments. With careful listening, one hears a rich and very Russian palette of somber melodies depicting bird calls, rustling leaves in the forest, battle scenes with warring Tatars, and horses' hoofbeats. The final "Musical Picture" is of the now deceased Maiden Fevrovnia's transfigured soul on the journey to the mystical and Invisible City of Kitezh. The City is seen only in the reflection of a shining lake, where the lovers are finally reunited.
Zut relates that the performance went very well with a most enthusiastic audience and that some people even wept. During an interlude, Zut said that he got carried away and improvised some additional music. Sergienko joined in and Sir Mark, to his credit, kept this spontaneous music in for the remaining three concerts. The first performance of the Invisible City was in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1907, and the first complete opera performance by the Chicago Symphony was 25 years later in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra could have hired no better players than this incomparable duo. Zut, a resident of Farmington Hills, Michigan, studied balalaika with Professor Alexander Shalov at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and is a master of the instrument. Sergienko, on the domra, is a graduate of the Kiev National University of Culture. Today in Chicago he plays in the Chicago Cossacks folk group. To my great regret I was in New York and did not attend a performance. The place to be in January was Chicago, listening to the two Gennadys in Orchestra Hall. If I had only known…