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Irving Fine in Russia

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The following is a guest blog by conductor, composer and educator Joel Spiegelman, written in commemoration of the Library’s Irving Fine Centennial Festival.

Irving Fine,Tanglewood 1956 (Irving Fine Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress)
Irving Fine,Tanglewood 1956 (Irving Fine Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress)

During November of 1988 I got a call from Saulius Sondeckis, the conductor of the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, asking me if I would be available to conduct his orchestra in a series of concerts devoted to American and Soviet music in Lithuania and Russia during the Spring of 1989. I enthusiastically agreed to his interesting proposal. Gosconcert, the Soviet Union’s only concert agency dealing with foreign performers arranged the details, halls, transportation and fees.

Gosconcert was then headed by a friend of mine, Vladimir Panchenko, a former administrative assistant to Tikhon Khrennikov, chairman of the long defunct Union of Soviet Composers. Panchenko suggested that they widen my tour and proposed other concerts with the Lithuanian National Symphony, the Leningrad Philharmonic, the Leningrad Chamber Orchestra, and some retrospective concerts of my own music in Lithuania, Moscow and Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg).

I decided to program two works by Irving Fine: Serious Song, A Lament for String Orchestra and Toccata Concertante for orchestra. Russians were not very familiar with American art music at the time. With the exception of popular works like George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Appalachian Spring of Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, MacDowell’s Second Piano Concerto, and some American jazz and pop standards, they were unaware of the fact that we had a rich repertory of works by American composers.

Fine’s music seemed like an appropriate choice. It was a natural bridge between their own traditions emanating from composers such as Stravinsky, whom Fine had a great musical affinity for and was connected to personally since the time he assisted Stravinsky when he delivered the Charles Elliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University in 1939-40. In addition, the Toccata Concertante, which was written and performed by the Boston Symphony under the leadership of Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky, showed influences of both countries’ musical traditions.

For my debut at Moscow’s Carnegie Hall in June 1989 at the large hall of the Moscow Conservatory, I chose Fine’s Serious Song as one of the works to perform with the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra. This beautiful and expressive work seemed just right for Russian audiences who are attracted to romantic and lyrical music. Although not exactly Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff, it received a very warm reception from both the performers and the audience. Prior to the Moscow performance, I performed it in the cities of Vilnius and Kaunas.

During this same tour, I conducted the Lithuanian National Philharmonic where I also included a work by Fine, the Toccata Concertante. During the fall of 1992, I had another tour in Russia, which by that time was no longer the Soviet Union, and conducted the State Symphony of Russia. I decided to include the Toccata Concertante in my program as I had in my concerts in Lithuania of 1989. With its driving Stravinskian neo-classical rhythms, melodies, and American bravado, it made a great hit in both countries.

Later, Irving Fine’s widow, Verna Fine, ask me to record all of Irving’s symphonic works. I chose the Moscow Radio Symphony–now called the Tchaikovsky Orchestra–for this task. They were one of Russia’s three or four top symphony orchestras at the time.

Returning to Moscow in March 1993, I commenced to work with the orchestra on this recording. It took place in Studio 5 at the Moscow Radio on Kochalov Street (now called Malaya Nikitskaya Ulitsa). At the time, it was the best recording studio in town.

Considering the proficiency and excellence of the musicians in the orchestra, it took me exactly four sessions including rehearsals to complete the recording. It worked out to everyone’s satisfaction and Delos Records agreed to release it. It is still available on their label [and also in the collections of the Library of Congress].

Although I never formally was a student of Fine, he was more than a teacher to me. He was my greatest friend and mentor; one who influenced my life and the direction of my career. I was happy to introduce his music to the Russian public and through this recording make it available to the entire world.

Spiegelman will appear at the Library on a panel entitled “The Music of Irving Fine” (December 6, 2014 at 2:00pm), part of the Irving Fine Centennial Festival. 

Additional #IrvingFine100 Resources:
The Irving Fine Collection
Irving Fine Centennial Oral Histories
Library of Congress Irving Fine Centennial Festival
Video Podcast: An Introduction to Irving Fine’s Fantasia for string trio

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