Symphonic journey into the Soviet era

Vancouver music director studies, introduces American audiences to Russian composer

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter



Did You Know?

• Seniors in this year’s University of Portland band program were born around 1995 — about four years after the Soviet Union broke up.

What you might call the opening movement of Patrick Murphy’s symphonic journey occurred when he listened to a CD.

It was Boris Kozhevnikov’s Symphony No. 3. That meant the Russian had written other symphonies, Murphy realized, but he’d never heard of them.

Now the Vancouver music educator is an authority on the music of the Soviet-era composer.

Murphy was able to find some of that unheard-of music during two trips to Moscow — a setting that included a no-nonsense Russian soldier armed with a rifle. He returned from his second trip about a month ago.

Murphy has introduced two of Kozhevnikov’s five symphonies to Western audiences, first as a music professor at the University of Arizona and more recently as director of bands at the University of Portland.

He also conducted the Southwest Washington Wind Symphony in a performance of Kozhevnikov’s Symphony No. 3 (which originally caught Murphy’s ear) in a 2015 Vancouver concert.

Kozhevnikov was a Red army colonel, which certainly shaped his work.

“His challenge was to write music for more than 1,000 military bands. He was writing tons of music. The amount of production was amazing.

“There is a fine line between art and functional music. Some clearly was pumped out in a day or two,” Murphy said, noting that the composer was operating under Stalin-era guidelines.

Everybody sing!

“If it’s for the military, it better be accessible — and patriotic. If it’s a vocal, it has to be able to be sung by a crowd,” Murphy said … and if you’re in that crowd, “You’d better sing.”

It started when Murphy was working on his doctorate at the University of Arizona.

“I was looking for something different to contribute. I heard Kozhevnikov’s Third on a CD, done by the U.S. Marine Band. It’s been done a lot. (Kozhevnikov’s) No. 5 was done at Auburn University.

“There still are three out there,” Murphy realized. “I got it into my head that I could track them down.

“I was able to access someone in Moscow at the Russian State Library. A woman had a copy of the Fourth Symphony. She scanned it and sent it, and we premiered it at the University of Arizona,” he said.

After moving to the University of Portland, Murphy won a grant that funded a 2013 research trip to Moscow.

In the Moscow Military Conservatory, “I found the hand-written manuscript for Symphony No. 1. It had never been published, only handwritten,” Murphy said.

“I was taking photos of the flaking paper, and a nice man said he could scan it.” After waiting for 2 1/2 hours for the man to return, “I stood up to stretch. An armed guard pointed his rifle at me and said ‘Nyet.’ The second day, I was there for five hours.”

It paid off when the University of Portland premiered Kozhevnikov’s First Symphony in the fall of 2014.

“It was the first non-Slavic performance,” Murphy said.

True to the music

Murphy brought back about 15 pieces of music from his May trip to Moscow and is still getting acquainted with it: “I sit at a piano and play it through.”

Reviving a Soviet-era symphony isn’t just a matter of reading music and reading Russian. To fine-tune his interpretations, Murphy might even try reading minds.

“To me, the question is always, ‘Why?’ Not what is that chord, but why? Where is he trying to go: Angry? Nostalgic? Triumphant?”

As he goes through that process, “It’s exciting,” Murphy said. “On one hand, no one knows what it’s supposed to sound like. You try to be as true as can be to the composer’s intent.”

Differences in instrumentation can make that challenging.

“They have horns we don’t use. And they didn’t like saxophones,” Murphy explained. In the repressive Communist era, “It was a bourgeoise jazz instrument. In the 1940s, they called up all the saxophone players and destroyed their instruments. Sergei the sax player became Sergei the violinist overnight.”