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Reflections of Russia

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CONCERTANTE DI CHICAGO

at DePaul University Concert Hall

March 15

Music in what used to be the Soviet Union often served as a barometer of the national mood: exhilaration after the 1917 revolution followed by attacks against "bourgeois" art; official propaganda punctuated by bouts of patriotism during the Stalin era; hints of dissent during the cold war; search for purpose and identity in the 80s. Probably no Soviet composer articulated the changing tensions more compellingly than Dmitry Shostakovich. And perhaps no medium allows artists to be introspective and intellectually subversive more effectively than chamber music.

"Shostakovich and New Language in Soviet Music" was the title of a recent concert by Concertante di Chicago, the noted conductorless chamber orchestra. Alongside Shostakovich's 1980 Chamber Symphony on the all-Russian program were works by Sophia Gubaidulina and Alfred Schnitke, two of his artistic disciples and spiritual heirs. (The Concertante's penchant for Russian music is understandable; its cofounder and concertmaster Hilel Kagan hails from Riga, Latvia.)

Strictly speaking, the Chamber Symphony doesn't belong in the Shostakovich oeuvre; it's an arrangement by Rudolf Barshai of the String Quartet no. 8--albeit under his direction and with his approval. In 1960, still persona non grata to the Soviet regime, Shostakovich traveled to Dresden, where the sight of the city that was almost annihilated in 1944 by Allied bombers must have reminded him of the German siege of Leningrad. During the war he had written a stirring symphony (no. 7) exhorting Russians to persevere. Now he was witnessing how the war had devastated the other side. During the war he was a national hero. Now he stood alone, the victim of a campaign against him. From 1953 (and the Tenth Symphony) on, he had personalized a number of his compositions with a four-note motif--D, E-flat, C, B--based on his initials. The Eighth Quartet would be another autobiographical musing, the most obvious one yet.

This quartet--and the Chamber Symphony--begins with the composer's monogram treated as a terse, ominous theme. It quickly leads into a fugue, which segues into a Sturm und Drang movement. The ferociously driven music--a youth's impetuosity perhaps--is relieved only by brief spells of lyricism. Suddenly the rush comes to a halt, and a waltz, heralded sardonically by the same monogram, emerges. The transition touches off a flood of memories in the form of quotes from past works that are stated, then slightly altered, with echoes of the four-note motif. In this section Shostakovich's private bitterness and anguish are enshrined. Finally the music recedes into nothingness. Like many of his late works, the quartet rises above its episodic nature to convey an emotion-laden descent into gloom and despair. Ironically, shortly after its completion, the composer was rehabilitated and resumed teaching at the Moscow Conservatory.

Barshai's arrangement is straightforward; he mainly reinforced the strings. The Concertante's playing was finely drawn, robust yet tender. It compelled one to think about the unhappy artist while underscoring his profoundly inspiring attitude--that the human spirit is indestructible, that a voice of conviction cannot be silenced.

Schnitke and Gubaidulina, both born in the early 30s, only came to the attention of the West in the 80s. The six or seven chamber pieces of theirs I'd heard seemed to share an aesthetic of austerity and desolation--as if other emotions would have been too extravagant under Brezhnev's rule, when they were written. But the two 1977 works of Schnitke's performed by the Concertante show another side of his musical persona. The single-movement Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra is a crazy quilt of idioms and themes. Almost like a parody, it launches into a lush Rachmaninoff-style proclamation, switches to a Stockhausen-like passage, and then embarks on a propulsive ride that's reminiscent of Prokofiev. Then the piano begins its cadenza, somber and contemplative at first. Gradually the music, now with the orchestra in tow, swells, climaxing in a Tchaikovskyan march. The piano goes solo again--this time in a coda that states the main musical idea. It's a quiet, abstract, purified statement, seemingly Schnitke's own and freed of the weight of the past. Overall the concerto, interpreted with force and flourish by the Ukrainian pianist Mykola Suk, comes off as a virtuosic postmodern commentary on the diversity of the Russian musical heritage. By playfully turning tradition on its head, Schnitke has achieved a form of subtle subversion.

More obviously a game is his Moz-Art a la Haydn, which the Concertante musicians played as an encore. The strings are divided into two camps, each headed by a solo violinist. The piece begins in darkness with 13 players improvising on fragments of Mozart's music like so many musicians rehearsing a performance. After the houselights come on, the soloists start spiritedly bouncing Mozartean melodies among themselves--all under the "direction" of a hapless maestro (Kagan). What sounds like Mozart is quickly deconstructed into atonal clusters. The ruckus reaches its height when the players frenetically trade places and the two lead violinists (Sharon Polifrone and Alexander Belavsky) get into a duel. Finally, as one of the lead violinists retunes his strings, the lights dim. The conductor keeps flailing his arms, while his musicians flee on tiptoe--repeating the stage direction for the finale of Haydn's Farewell Symphony (no. 45). The piece is a lighthearted burlesque--fun for musicians and listeners alike. It certainly changed my view of Schnitke as a serious-minded-only aesthete.

Gubaidulina's Seven Last Words (1982) reaffirms my impression of her music. Alternately pleading, melancholic, impassioned, and docile, it ruminates over Christ's suffering and man's lot in this world. Gubaidulina, who grew up in the Tatar city of Kazan, cofounded in the 70s a composers' group that encourages the use of Russian, Caucasian, and Arabic folk instruments. An appeal to ethnic roots is nothing new of course; back in the 19th century the Russian Five also campaigned against creeping Western influences. Yet formally her partita pays homage to the Baroque tradition of setting Christ's last utterances to music and owes much to Schoenberg and others in the old European vanguard.

Her clear concession to Russianness is her use of the bayan, the Russian accordion. Each of the seven movements opens with one of Christ's utterances on the cross (spoken in turn by the solo cellist and bayan player). In the first three movements the long solitary exchanges between the unusual pair of cello and bayan are followed by quasi-Baroque chorales from the string orchestra. The mood conveyed by the bayan shifts from anguish to agitation to berserk outbursts; the cello, more often than not, serves as a soulful, becalming companion. In the pivotal fourth movement--prefaced by "God, My Father, Why Hath Thou Forsaken Me"--the orchestra joins the soloists from the start. The deep-throated, inchoate rumblings gather force and swell into loud protests. The cello puts a stop to that; its assertive yet even-tempered speech keeps everyone rapt. When the cello finishes, the orchestra plays in unison, in solidarity. (Could this be the composer's indictment of the failure of the communist promise followed by her hope for sagacious leaders?)

In the fifth section the bayan and the cello (played with authority by Joseph Petric and Gary Stucka) are back to their old dialogue encompassing a range of emotions, but this time more probing, more fervid. Rage returns in the next movement, only to be drowned out by a rising "classically styled" euphony from the orchestra. In the finale the soloists and orchestra turn meditative and gloomy. Their murmurs wax and wane, then subside. The despair reminded me of Shostakovich. Christ's last utterance was "Father, Father, I place my fate in your hands." Was Gubaidulina's sentiment in 1982 a prophecy of things to come in the Russian republics? Or a pleading that has outlived its relevance?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stuart-Rodgers-Reilly.

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