Muti, CSO open season with dark Shostakovich, delightful Prokofiev

Sat Sep 22, 2018 at 10:55 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Riccardo Muti congratulates soloist Alexey Tikhomirov following Friday night’s CSO performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 “Babi Yar.” Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed Thursday night at Millennium Park, presenting a lightish evening of Rossini, Verdi and Tchaikovsky with the Civic Orchestra. 

But the CSO began their real 128th season Friday night with Riccardo Muti leading the orchestra in a deep dive into the darker waters of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 “Babi Yar.”  

Yevgeny Yevtushenko published his poem Babi Yar in 1961, inspired by a visit to the title Ukraine site where more than thirty thousand Jews were massacred by the Nazis in 1941. Yevtushenko also cited other victims of anti-Semitism in his poem, criticizing the Soviet government for its silence and complicity in the Babi Yar pogroms, as well as indicting contemporary manifestations of anti-Semitism in the Soviet state.

Though not Jewish himself, Shostakovich had many Jewish friends and often mined Jewish musical motifs in his works, both outwardly (From Jewish Folk Poetry) and more subtly (the Piano Trio No. 2 and String Quartet No. 4).

Equally appalled by the semi-sanctioned acts of anti-Semitism by the murderous Soviet regime, Shostakovich was greatly moved by Yevtushenko’s poem and decided to set Babi Yar to music. He soon felt the need for a larger canvas and expanded the work to an hour-long vocal symphony for solo bass and men’s chorus; he added settings of four other Yevtushenko poems, expanding the work to a broader, if sometimes oblique, critique of other aspects of the Soviet government. After many cancellations by artists pressured by the party commissars, Shostakovich’s controversial Thirteenth Symphony had its Moscow premiere in 1962 and soon disappeared from view.

Riccardo Muti conducted one of the first performances in the West in 1970 with the texts in Italian. Accordingly to the composer’s wife Irina, Shostakovich greatly prized an off-air tape of that performance. (Shostakovich’s widow was flown into Chicago by the CSO for these performances and she took part in an on-stage conversation with Muti after Friday night’s performance.)

In his introduction, the CSO’s music director spoke with sincerity of his great fondness for the “Babi Yar” symphony—both musically and as a timeless humanistic statement that “we are all brothers and sisters” and that people must oppose all forms of religious persecution and government tyranny.

Characteristically, nothing was held back in Friday night’s season-opening performance. The massive orchestral climaxes of the first movement’s setting of Babi Yar were overwhelming in their volume and violent intensity. Across all sections, the CSO musicians responded to Muti’s concentrated direction as an ensemble and individually—most notably John Bruce Yeh’s unsettling bass clarinet and Gene Pokorny’s spacious, lugubrious tuba solo at the start of  the “Fears” movement.

Shostakovich’s symphony is striking even today for its politically courageous stance. Not only does the work strongly indict anti-Semitism in all its forms, it also critiques core aspects of life in the Soviet regime, from food shortages (“In the Market”) to threats to intellectual freedom and professional treachery against artistic nonconformity (“A Career.”)

Yet even with its important message, I can’t quite agree with the CSO music director that “Babi Yar” is “a masterpiece” musically. Vast sections of Shostakovich’s score are miles over the top in their bludgeoning sonic overkill, rivaling the excesses of the Seventh Symphony. Further, there is not enough musical depth or variety to mitigate the pages of pile-driving brutality and oppressively bleak, meandering vocal lines. 

Listening Friday night one wondered if the Thirteenth Symphony would hold such esteem today if this music was set to one of the composer’s more tub-thumping Communist Party texts like Song of the Forests. Shostakovich’s music always seems at its finest in pure, non-vocal forms where the more elusive and complex emotions are given free range. Being tied to a text seems to create a more literal and didactic musical response.

Despite reservations about the music, there were no doubts to be had about the quality of the evening’s performance or soloist. Alexey Tikhomirov was a supremely responsive advocate throughout, singing with a flexible, middle-weight bass. The Russian singer was a firm, stentorian presence in the declamatory passages without crossing the line to mere hectoring.  He was especially fine in the fleeting subtle moments, especially the introspective moments of “Fears” and “In the Market.”

The men of the Chicago Symphony Chorus were equal partners with the soloist, singing with power and brutality as needed, and bringing a dark echt-Slavic sound to their role.

The evening began in a lighter mode, mercifully, with the belated CSO debut of Sergei Prokofiev’s Sinfonietta. Written in 1909 (revised in 1915 and 1929), his Op. 5 is an early attempt at capturing the same retro Haydenesque spirit, which would find acclaim in the composer’s Classical Symphony (No. 1) eight years later.

Prokofiev was baffled as to why this work never achieved the popularity of his First Symphony, and it’s hard not to feel the same puzzlement. The symphony may be more polished in its cool, calculated brilliance, but the Sinfonietta has its own considerable merits, and is overall a warmer and more engaging work.

Cast in five shortish movements, there is a goofy, off-kilter charm in its mercurial, shifting tempos. The giocoso quality is to the fore in the dominant 6/8 signature, and the lyrical theme of the Andante sounds like a pre-echo of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet to come.

Muti led a performance that was wholly delightful—fleet, stylish and alive to the potential of every hairpin turn in the score. The front-desk woodwinds largely relished their turns in the spotlight bringing out the quirky wit of the score.

Performing in his first week as the CSO’s new principal oboe, William Welter’s playing was often reticent to the point of inaudibility. No doubt the orchestra’s newest member will plant his flag with greater confidence in the weeks and months to come.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.; 312-294-3000.

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