Exiles on Rodeo Drive

by Gerald Carpenter

RUSSIAN REFUGEE: The next world-class ensemble brought to our town by the Community Arts Music Association will be the Russian National Orchestra, conducted by its founder and artistic director, Mikhail Pletnev. The orchestra will play a concert in the Arlington on Saturday, March 25, at 8 p.m. The all-Russian program consists of two works by Sergei Rachmaninov — the exquisite Vocalise and the overwhelming Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor (with Alexander Mogilevsky, piano soloist), and one work by Peter Tchaikovsky, his Suite No. 3 in G Major, Opus 55. For tickets, call CAMA at 966-4324 or the Arlington at 963-4408.

The late, irreplaceable I. F. Stone, when he was describing how he came to begin writing in support of the dispossessed Palestinians, admitted, “in the first place, I’m a sucker for refugees.”

Me, too, I’m afraid — even when, like Rachmaninov, they were comfortable and loved in exile, instead of miserable and despised. No matter how well set up they were in foreign lands, Rachmaninov, Thomas Mann, and Albert Einstein were celebrities, and never had to hustle or scam. But they still could not do the one thing they wanted to more than anything: go home.

Exile was a kind of fundamental condition in most of the 20th century, as addiction has become a fundamental condition of the 21st. And I mean fundamental for artists and intellectuals. Modern art is the creation of exiles and expatriates. James Joyce wrote a play called Exiles and a novel called Ulysses and spent several years teaching English in Trieste. It could have been consideration of Joyce that led Georg Lukács to write that “…the novel form is, like no other, an expression of this transcendental homelessness.”

Rachmaninov is the poet of lost history. His music is steeped in grief. Life is always snatching things away, just when we are awakening to their possibilities. Self-pity doesn’t really come into it.

It is with something of a start when we realize that all this “utopia of hopeless melancholy” (as Robert Craft characterizes Rachmaninov’s music) was written before the revolution, before he had to leave Russia, never to return. He composed his Third Piano Concerto to play on his 1909 American tour — which he had undertaken to make enough money to buy an automobile.

So, if it wasn’t the Revolution that gave him his tragic sense of life, what was it? His birth as a Russian?

Rachmaninov was a shy, affectionate man, who loved spending time with his family and family friends. There are tons of photos of him beaming with a granddaughter or daughter on his arm. In an official bio of the composer for an omnibus set of his recordings, we learn of the widespread musicality of Rachmaninov’s family: “…and his sister, Helena, who died in adolescence, is said to have been an extraordinarily talented singer.”

The writer was perhaps an only child. The fact that Helena died was less interesting than the fact she could sing. I’ll bet it was the other way around for Rachmaninov.

The dynamic Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra and its compelling conductor Heiichiro Ohyama take a break from its “Mostly Mozart” celebrations with a Tuesday, March 28, concert at the Lobero Theatre that contains no Mozart at all (unless something gets in the encore).

The Chamber Orchestra will play two works: Ludwig Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Opus 93, and Johannes Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 77, with the impressive violinist Cho-Liang Lin, going solo when appropriate. For tickets to this concert, call 963-0761.

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