Soprano Erika Baikoff leans into classical sentimentality

A woman holds her hair at the nape of her neck and looks off to the side.
Erika Baikoff

Singer joins Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center to revisit Russian romance music

By Heather Longley

A theme in Russian classical romance art music is the play on musical-emotional decadence. Marked by passionate soundscapes, meandering melodies and technical expressionism, Sergei Rachmaninoff became one of the heroes of the style.

The genre suits Russian-American soprano Erika Baikoff.

“The music just has so much space and freedom for collaboration,” she said. With the larger ensembles, “there are so many musicians involved. But here, the way that it's written, there's so much room for interpretation, and there's so much room for spontaneous playing with the other instruments.”

Baikoff will perform “Rachmaninoff Celebration” with Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 25, in Recital Hall. Visit Chamber Music online for more information about the concert and a public Classical Coffeehouse event.

“Rachmaninoff Celebration” will mark the 150th anniversary of the Russian virtuoso's birth. In her third project with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Baikoff will accompany pianist Giles Vonsattel, violinist Benjamin Beilman and cellist Clive Greensmith in a performance of works representative of the classical romance music form.

The program features songs by members of Russia's pioneering and self-trained “Mighty Five” (Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Mily Balakirev), as well as some of the biggest names in 19th-century Russian classical music—Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and his mentee, Rachmaninoff.

Notes of nostalgia

“This repertoire is really special, because my parents are both Russian,” Baikoff said. “My first language is Russian growing up and often at home. Some of the repertoire is kind of like folk stories or folklore that I grew up with.”

Baikoff, at one time an aspiring ballerina, said growing up around the Russian classical music canon inspired her to pivot from dance to music. And like Russian composers of the romance era who also were inspired by Russian history, folk tales and literature, Baikoff found her calling in the music world as a singer.

For her, though, the cherry on top is this program. The singer said “Rachmaninoff Celebration” is nostalgic for her, adding to the genre's built-in sentimentality.

She said “The Golden Fish Song” was a story embedded in Russian culture. The traditional Eastern European folktale boils down to being grateful for what one has and not to be greedy. The ensemble and Baikoff will perform Balakirev's inspired “Song of the Goldfish” at the Recital Hall concert.

“It really reminds me of learning to read with my grandmother and dancing to all of this very traditional Russian music, and all the kind of joy and despair that it has all in one song,” Baikoff said.

'Continue playing Russian music'

The concept of celebrating Russian culture may seem tone-deaf, given the state of the Russia-Ukraine war. Baikoff pointed to a connection between Rachmaninoff of the past and current events.

“He was absolutely shunned by the government and quite an outsider in many aspects of life, not just cultural, but also socially and by a lot of the greatest Russian composers,” she said.

After the Russian Revolution, Rachmaninoff left his homeland for good in 1917. Preferring to perform over conduct, he appeared at Penn State for a solo performance at Schwab Auditorium on Feb. 3, 1943. He died less than two months later.

“I think it's important that we continue playing Russian music, especially at this time,” Baikoff said. “I think it's important to remember that these composers have nothing to do with what's going on at the moment.”

“We're all human, and music should always be a way to connect us. And I think this is what this concert does.”

Heather Longley is a communications specialist at the Center for the Performing Arts.

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