CSO’s festival opener light on artistic truth but delivers sonic power

Fri May 23, 2014 at 12:32 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Jaap van Zweden conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Britten and Shostakovich Thursday night.
Jaap van Zweden conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Britten and Shostakovich Thursday night. File photo: Marco Borggreve

Whatever else one can say about the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s “Truth to Power” festival, Thursday’s opening performance led by Jaap van Zweden undeniably provided the loudest playing heard all season at Orchestra Hall in Shostakovich’s unsubtle “Leningrad” symphony.

For the next three weeks through June 8, the CSO will be spotlighting music of Dmitri Shostakovich, Serge Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten as part of its “Truth to Power” festival, incorporating four CSO programs and a recital by Vladimir Feltsman.

The theme tenuously tying these composers together is that each man “produced works that stirred nations toward hope and a brighter future” and that all “believed that the artist should serve society by creating music that would inspire justice and fairness.” (All artists making a case for injustice and unfairness, please stand up.)

In many ways it makes sense for uniting these three contemporaries—Britten and Shostakovich, particularly, since the two men were great admirers of each other’s music and enjoyed a close professional friendship.

But the generalized “Truth to Power” concept as represented by the four programs on the CSO slate seems both overstated and misapplied. Superb as his best music is, Benjamin Britten was about as establishment a figure as a gay composer could be in mid-20th-century England. Prokofiev’s subversive streak confined itself entirely to musical matters and he studiously avoided conflicts with the Soviet commissars after moving back to his homeland.

Unlike Mstislav Rostropovich, Andrei Sakharov, and other courageous Russian dissidents, Shostakovich didn’t take any public political stands against the Soviet power structure and allowed himself to be used as a propaganda tool by the communist regime’s leaders. Yet his finest music—searching, fragile, desolate and despairing—speaks eloquently as to his true feelings.

A case can be made for the “Truth to Power” tag in Shostakovich’s case by performing some of the works that got him into trouble with the Soviet cultural commissars: the turbulent, Mahler-on-acid Symphony No. 4; the dark, sexually explicit opera that infuriated Stalin, Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District; or the Symphony No. 13 “Babi Yar,” Shostakovich’s unambiguous response to official Soviet anti-Semitism.

Yet none of these works are being performed. In fact, the CSO festival is offering Shostakovich’s three most familiar symphonies (Nos. 5, 7 and 9), as well as popular works of Prokofiev and Britten that have little, if anything, to do with an artist’s credo against malign and oppressive forces. How the heck does Britten’s Violin Concerto speak “truth to power”?

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad”, the main work on Thursday’s concert, seems especially ill-chosen as an example of artistic courage, despite its anti-German wartime fervor and the hooplah of its initial success. Toscanini fought with Stokowski over the rights to the American premiere of the composer’s wartime paean to his heroic countrymen (Toscanini won), and the success of that debut and ensuing widespread performances made Shostakovich’s name in the West.

Yet in hindsight, it’s hard not to feel that the symphony was wildly overpraised, as much for offering a useful wartime propaganda device for the Allies’ Soviet brothers-in-arms than for its musical substance. Bartok mercilessly skewered its “invaders’ theme” in his Concerto for Orchestra. And postwar even its most celebrated advocates quickly lost their enthusiasm. When shown a copy of the score years after he led the U.S. premiere, Toscanini said, “I conducted that?!”

Even for a composer as highly regarded as Shostakovich, the Symphony No. 7 has not worn well. Spanning 80 minutes and scored for Brobdingnagian forces (triple winds, piano, six percussionists, six trumpets and nine horns), the symphony depicts the assault of the titular city by the German invaders, followed by reflections of a more innocent prewar time, and the ultimate victory over their enemy by the brave Russian people.

Even allowing for justifiable patriotism at a time of dire national emergency, the Seventh is a hard piece to take seriously today, a kind of musical version of Soviet poster art on steroids. The infamous 30-minute opening movement with its slow, massive crescendo as the march theme representing the German army grows into deafening cacophony—a kind of witless militaristic Bolero—stands as one of the most embarrassing inspirations penned by a major composer in the 20th century. The bombastic finale is nearly as bad, exulting in the same tub-thumping banality the first movement attempts to satirize. And, apart from musical matters, it’s hard not to feel queasy listening to any music celebrating a great Soviet victory when the country’s current expansionist-minded president is engaging in a slow-motion dismemberment of Ukraine.

As shown in previous outings with the CSO, Jaap van Zweden’s mastery of the long line and purposeful, freshly scrubbed intensity are well-suited to Shostakovich. The Dutch conductor made no apologies for the work’s excess and the cochlea-shaking climaxes were impeccably balanced Thursday even with a hundred musicians roaring.

Where the performance did score was in the firm sense of momentum, the widely terraced dynamics van Zweden elicited, and the smart, distinctive playing of individual CSO members: Cynthia Yeh’s stamina and dynamic control on the snare drum in the long crescendo; the conversational duet between Eugene Izotov’s oboe and William Buchman’s bassoon; J. Lawrie Bloom’s light-footed bass clarinet solo, and the ray of light offered by Mathieu Dufour’s flute solo in the brooding Adagio.

The brief first half consisted of the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes. Van Zweden led a more unbridled account of this music than one usually hears. Even “Sunday Morning” was more tense than bucolic, and if the salt-air atmosphere was somewhat lacking, van Zweden provided dramatic urgency and nerve-wracked intensity, whipping up a cataclysmic fury in the storm section.

Elsewhere there were odd slips, including a couple late xylophone notes and dry, less-then-ethereal playing from the assistant principal flute. Li-Kuo Chang’s gentle viola solo in the Passacaglia painted Grimes’ vulnerable apprentice with fine sensitivity.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “CSO’s festival opener light on artistic truth but delivers sonic power”

  1. Posted May 23, 2014 at 8:31 pm by Spencer

    I believe the expression of the soul of the Russian people and the dual destroyers Stalin and Hitler wears very well and that this symphony is a classic. As long as we value history, listeners will react strongly to this work. Shostakovich wrote in response to what he felt and experienced, and propaganda is not what he felt. Bartok’s “skewering” may have been as much a result of Bartok’s ill-health and unhappiness at the time, so to bring it up in 2014 is hardly worthwhile.

  2. Posted May 24, 2014 at 3:24 pm by Daniel Cohn

    I agree completely with the above comments by Spencer. I would elaborate as follows: being a composer is difficult; being a music critic, by comparison, is easy. There are lesser pieces by famous composers, and sometimes, it would be appropriate to point out that a work is not often played because it may not be up the usual standards of a given composer.

    This designation of the Symphony No. 7 as not being a very good work is absurd. My only difficulty with the symphony is that in the third and fourth movements, there are passages where the music almost seems to come to a standstill. I interpret this in part as a torturous process that that Shostakovich puts the listener though, befitting his overall subject of war. Mr. Johnson may not have any direct connections to the Nazis, but I had relatives who I never met because of their demise in the Holocaust. Most of the music is relatively subdued and quiet, and often slow-moving. The subject matter of war, particularly WWII, required a powerful response. Being able to play fortissimo is one of the attributes of an orchestra, and there are time when it can and should be used by composers.

    In listening to Britten’s Four Sea Interludes, it occurred to me that while there are some first-rate opera orchestras in the world, I doubted if opera-goers would hear a performance of this music with such intensity as it was given by the CSO. The music to me is not just about the sea but is about bad luck and tragedy, such as that which befalls Peter Grimes. In a similar way, Shostavich found himself trapped in an occupied Lenningrad. I myself like best Shostakovich’s experimental 4th as well as his 10th Symphony. The slow (third) movement of his 5th Symphony I find to be too lengthy and too slow, and while I am not that familiar with hia chamber music, he seems to have borrowed from himself in at least one case, and has some other movements which I found hard to understand. Nevertheless, the Lennigrad Symphony has an emotional impact that many works by other composers lack, and contain some great music which is unique.

  3. Posted Jun 03, 2014 at 8:41 pm by Ilya

    A somewhat belated comment: the much-discussed and referred to above “invasion” theme is nothing of the sort. It uses pre-existing material, and the way it develops negates any idea of an “invasion”. Invasions do not tip-toe into the country. An internal political strangulation maybe, however. Shostakovich, of course, did not have it in him to protest that propaganda re-interpretation.

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