By Tom Chester
The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 marked the end of the Cold War and (amongst many other perks) saw a renaissance of Russian music flooding across the Iron Curtain into the West. One of the pieces gripped Commander John R. Bourgeois from the United States Marine Band who went about orchestrating it for a more American-style symphonic band.
The work in question was Boris Kozhevnikov’s Symphony No. 3 for band, one of five symphonies the composer had written for this ensemble. Kozhevnikov (1906-1985), now a popular composer in Russia, studied at the Kharkov Music-Dramatic Institute before attending the Military School of Music in Moscow. The work was written in 1950 but didn’t reach Western audiences until the late 1990s.
The Symphony is subtitled Slavyanskaya, most probably after the public square of the same name in Moscow, rather than the Russian brand of vodka! The thematic material for the work was drawn from folk tunes from the composer’s home city of Novgorod, and is quintessentially Russian sounding throughout all four movements.
The first movement opens with aggressive shock chords before the first theme played in the trumpets, then a more lyrical secondary theme is heard from the tenor sax and euphonium. Kozhevnikov skilfully weaves more ideas around these two themes with constant climatic suggestions. Movement two, a slow pastoral waltz, dances along until the last 8 bars when it erupts into a circus waltz before finishing with a sign off in the original tempo, a great contrast from the third movement. This whirlwind rondo puts any fine piccolo player through their paces. The finale is strikingly similar to the first movement, this time in F major rather than F minor. The tempo here is even faster, charging to the end of the work in breakneck speeds.
The work is notoriously difficult (American grade 6) and a solid performance hinges on the constant drive and energy. The parts for the euphonium, bassoon and horn are exceptionally technical and require more than proficient sections. Interestingly, the saxophones don’t double the technical aspects of the French horn parts; in fact they are used rather sparingly. This was because the saxophone was considered ‘not Soviet’ in Russian band music.
I have found however for a successful performance it is crucial to double the weaker horn parts in the redundant saxophone to carry the momentum in the continuous, underlying quavers. Also when performing it can be a good idea to drop the octave of some of the melodies in the 2nd flutes and 2nd/3rd clarinets to ensure a solid base of tuning.
Despite these challenges, this elusive piece is fast becoming standard in band literature and if your band has the chops to tackle the work, I strongly recommend getting those fingers working for an adventurous flight into Soviet Russia.