Books and Brews: a trip to Russia!

Michael Agnew, craft beer, beer cicerone
Michael opening coffee beer for the microphone
Coming up this Saturday is the second edition of Books and Brews with Laura Vosika.  Last month, we had a lot of fun.  We talked poetry and beer, with poet Michael Dean, beer cicerone Michael Agnew, and Laura Hedlund and Karen Olson Johnson, hosts of Food Freedom Radio, as we sampled coffee-based beers. 

This month, we'll be talking with Ross Fishman of Kramer School of Music and Dr. Chris Powell about Russian literature and Russian music, and sampling some Russian beers with Michael Agnew.

As anyone who reads The Blue Bells Chronicles knows, I...I mean, particularly fond of the Russian composers, of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky.  Why is Shawn so fond of them?  The old joke is:

How do you recognize a Russian composer....

...wait for it...
. his accents!

This is hilarious to musicians.  Well, okay, at least to this musician.  What does this have to do with Shawn?  For non-musicians, an 'accent' in music means to hit the note hard.  Although each composer is unique, there is a tendency toward strength in Russian music, toward strong accents, and big brass sounds.  What this means to a trombonist is--the orchestral parts are often fun to play.

Think The Great Gate of Kiev.  The trombones pick up the melody about 1:30.

Or the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky--particularly the finale:

These parts are just fun to play.  And really, is there any other point to music? 

(Well, actually, yes there is, but that's a discussion for The Theology of Music.  And as I often tell my students, quoting my former trombone teacher David Ritt, "If music is doesn't."  Music should be fun.  Of course, trombonists are all too well known for having too much fun, especially if left alone for lengthy periods of time with long rests while other instruments get to play.  Of course, it was a trombonist who got the brilliant idea to put a firecracker in the bell of his instrument to shoot out over the crowd during the 1812 Overture...while he was playing.  That didn't go so well.  But back to Russian music.

As another side note, one of the great experiences of my life was playing in the backup brass ensemble, onstage with the Minnesota Orchestra in this finale.  The 'canons' were played by rifles being fired into barrels right behind the wall we sat against.  It was a thrill like no other.)

Russian music actually ties very well with Russian literature because so much of it tells stories.

The 1812 Overture is a commemoration of Russian's defense against Napoleon guessed...1812.

Mussorgsky, Russian music, Russian orchestral music, Pictures at an Exhibition, Great Gate of Kiev, Hartmann
Mussorgsky's Great Gate of Kiev tells, wait, did you guess...yes, the Great Gate of Kiev!  The twist, though, is that the Great Gate doesn't exist.  And yet--there's a story behind it.  It starts with 'the event of 4 April 1866,' which is what Tsar Alexander II called the assassination attempt on his life.  In celebration of his avoidance of death ("I'm alive!") the tsar set up a national contest for drawings in order to build a city gate.  Victor Hartmann drew and entered his Great Gate.  On his death of an aneurysm, his friend Vladimir Stasov put together an exhibition of 400 of Hartmann's paintings and drawings.

Their mutual friend, Modest Mussorgsky was inspired by the exhibit to write Pictures at an Exhibition--which in turn tells the story of the exhibit, describing, musically, ten of the paintings.  In between each 'painting,' we hear the musical description of a man walking from piece to piece.

Another of the paintings was of a clock Hartmann designed.  His drawing of the clock was in turn based on the old Russian fairy tale about the witch Baba Yaga, who lived in a hut that ran around on chicken legs.

Prokofiev tells us the musical story of Peter and the Wolf--each character in the story 'played by' a theme on a different instrument--and Mussorgsky tells us the tale of a Night on Bald Mountain, conjuring up witches with the cackling of violins and the peace that comes with the rising sun with a flute solo.  Stravinsky's most famous musical story is Rite of Spring, although he wrote many more.  He himself had an interest in Russian folklore.

Join us Saturday for more--including Russian beers!


  • February 26: I'll be reading on the Vehicle of Expression, part of the Art Shanty Project

  • February 25, 2017: I will co-host Food Freedom on AM 950 with Laura Hedlund and Karen Olson Johnson.  Guests: Michael Agnew, craft beer expert and Ross Fishman on Russian literature.  We'll taste Russian beer: listen to the whole program from last month.

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