Copyright ©2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Twentieth-century Russian music is known for its dark, brooding sounds, a reflection of life under the thumb of a brutal state.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Now, even when it was lighter, it usually had a kind of gallows humor. Yet, many of the same composers whose concert works often reflected a stark reality also wrote a cartoon music for kids. And tonight, the Brooklyn Philharmonic plays some of those cartoon scores in the heart of the Russian-American community in New York City: Brighton Beach. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas reports that for some of its creators, cartoon music offered an escape.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: In 1939, composer Dmitri Shostakovich had already survived being denounced in the official newspaper of Stalin's regime, but 1939 was also the year Shostakovich turned out this merry cartoon score: "The Silly Little Mouse."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC SCORE, "THE SILLY LITTLE MOUSE")

TSIOULCAS: Composing for films and theater offered Shostakovich a chance to earn income, but that doesn't mean that he and his contemporaries watered down their work, says Alan Pierson, the Brooklyn Philharmonic's new music director.

ALAN PIERSON: These composers weren't slumming it, doing this. The music that they wrote for the genre is really sophisticated and really interesting music. It's music which - as cartoon music and film music should - immediately conveys a sense of mood and atmosphere and scene in a way that has an immediate impact on people. And yet, the harmonic and tonal language of the music is really complicated and sophisticated.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC SCORE, "THE SILLY LITTLE MOUSE")

TSIOULCAS: "The Silly Little Mouse" takes its inspiration from a popular 1922 children's tale. Lora Mjolsness is the director of the program in Russian studies at the University of California, Irvine. She points out that artists of all kinds were under intense ideological pressure, and some of them found a creative escape hatch in children's stories.

LORA MJOLSNESS: A lot of animators turned to the fairy tale because in terms of propaganda in this time, the tale allowed animators to draw on national heritage and to focus on sort of timeless moral instruction, skirting away from overt ideology.

TSIOULCAS: As decades passed and restrictions on artists loosened, animators began experimenting again. Eventually, one of the world's most beloved children's characters took on a Russian accent. In 1958, A.A. Milne's famous honey-loving bear became "Vinny Pookh." Nine years later, this pooh bear got his own Russian cartoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARTOON, "VINNY POOKH")

TSIOULCAS: The music for "Vinny Pookh" was penned by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Jewish composer who fled his native Poland in 1939 and headed east to the Soviet Union. The rest of Weinberg's family stayed behind and perished in a concentration camp. Weinberg became a great friend and colleague to Shostakovich. And despite the widespread persecution of Soviet Jews - he himself was briefly jailed in 1953 - Weinberg's concert music was performed in his new country.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TSIOULCAS: This Polish Jewish immigrant, now known as Moisei Weinberg, also created some of the most iconic bits of Russian pop culture, including the music for the 1969 cartoon "Vinny Pookh V Gosti," "Winnie the Pooh Goes Visiting."

(SOUNDBITE OF CARTOON, "VINNY POOKH V GOSTI")

TSIOULCAS: "Vinny Pookh" wasn't the only outsider to wend his way into Soviet animation. The 1969 cartoon "The Bremen Musicians" was very lightly based on a Grimm fairy tale. But its score by Gennady Gladkov flows along a modern current with its electric guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

LJOVA ZHURBIN: It feels like under these cartoons there's a certain kind of counterculture itch.

TSIOULCAS: Ljova Zhurbin is a Moscow-born composer, arranger and violist. Now based in New York, Ljova, as he's known, is the son of one of Russia's best-known film and theatrical composers, Alexander Zhurbin. The Brooklyn Phil is playing one of Ljova's original scores along with several of his arrangements.

ZHURBIN: You almost feel like these cartoons are not entirely just for kids, but they're actually for the adults. They always keep trying to push the envelope, whether it's musically by using rock 'n' roll, which was not entirely approved at the time or with characters doing bizarre, unruly things.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TSIOULCAS: Ljova says the music matches the animation.

ZHURBIN: Everything is an incredibly imaginative approach to scoring, to orchestration, to styles. You would hope that somebody would write things with so much optimism and so much integrity for a background piece of music.

TSIOULCAS: With tonight's concert, the Brooklyn Philharmonic hopes to bring these cartoon scores into the foreground. Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: And you can watch some of these cartoons and hear more of the music at nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: