A healthy mix of hipsters, blue hairs, and Russians filled the Millennium Theater in Brighton Beach last night for the full-orchestra debut of the resuscitated Brooklyn Philharmonic. Led by new artistic director Alan Pierson, the group is bringing non-traditional repertoire into communities around the borough in “programs [that] speak to the community but also about that community to a larger audience,” as he told New York magazine this summer. They kicked off this ambitious concept in Little Odessa with a program of Soviet cartoon-music, featuring the work of composers both familiar and obscure.
In the U.S., many animated shorts, especially at Warner Brothers, used the rich backlog of classical history as soundtrack, providing a musical education to generations of children. But the Soviets apparently tended toward original music. (Most of the cartoons were produced by the legendary animation studio Soyuzmultfilm, including 1971’s “Vinni Puh Goes Visiting,” in which a singer delivered the familiar cartoon bear’s lines in a hilariously vodka-hardened Russian rasp.) The best known Russian composer featured last night was Shostakovich, whose operatic score for the 1939 cartoon “The Silly Little Mouse” (directed by Mikhail Tsekhanovsky) concerns a young mouse who refuses to go to sleep; his mother enlists a menagerie of animals to sing him a lullaby, each in a different Russian folk-style that feels appropriate to their species. As they would for several of the cartoons shown that night, a group of singers also performed the dialogue, while foley artist Ian Colletti provided live sound effects.
Many of the cartoons’ scores shifted between varied styles of music: Vyacheslav Artyomov’s score for “Boy is a Boy” (1986) moved from jazzy blues to romantic piano to more adventurous 20th century styles. Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin’s music for “Only Love” (a non-Soviet cartoon from 2008) evoked myriad moods (including nightmares, battles, and ceremonies) while exploring ragtime and showtune forms. The concert was bookended by pieces from 1969’s “The Bremen Musicians,” perhaps the most popular Russian cartoon; Gennady Gladkov’s score riffs on rock opera, American country music, 50s rock n’ roll, and 60s singer-songwriter stuff. The command of the different genres showcased the Philharmonic’s range, a bit of showing-off for their debut show.
They can even do straight classical. The most familiar piece of the evening—for a non-Russian, anyway—was the first movement of Beethoven’s Third; the orchestra plans to perform a different movement at each of its season’s concerts in different communities, creating a kind of trans-neighborhood symphony. (It was the first piece the Brooklyn Philharmonic played at its 1857 debut concert.) Lucky for them, as Pierson acknowledged from the stage (where all his remarks will also translated into Russian), they found a Russian cartoon that used the piece—Akop Kirakosyan’s “Doom,” from 1992. The orchestra played the movement briskly, revealing string and brass parts I’d never really noticed before while de-emphasizing others. (Brooklyn is certainly not as bombastically percussive as the New York Philharmonic.)
The audience was less sophisticated than your typical concert hall crowd: they snapped flash photographs; needed persistent shushing; and one guy not only left his cell phone on but answered it when it rang. But, hey, that’s the point of these concerts: to bring the concert hall to the community, not the other way around. (In the lobby, catered Russian food was served from aluminum trays.) “This is beyond cool,” Russian-born Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny said at intermission, beaming boyishly. “This is wonderful.”
Watch “The Silly Little Mouse” with music by Dmitri Shostakovich: