Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Symphony Preview, March 5 and 6, 2016: More clouds of gray than any Russian play could guarantee

This weekend Gilbert Varga conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in the third of their four Shakespeare Festival programs with a concert that's around 70% Shakespeare and 100% Russian. Which isn't as unusual as you might think.

Portrait of Tchaikovsky by Nikolai Kuznetsov
As I noted a couple weeks ago, the Bard of Avon has inspired quite a lot of music over the centuries, much of it by composers who knew his works only in translation and in some cases (Ambroise Thomas's operatic treatment of "Hamlet" comes immediately to mind) only in fairly free adaptations by other writers. But no matter how far removed they were from the original plays, many of history's greatest composers have found themselves fascinated by Shakespeare's characters and themes.

The great Russian composers were no exception. Tchaikovsky found inspiration in the Bard for one of his Greatest Hits, the "Romeo and Juliet Fantas-Overture," as well as for his less well known overtures "The Tempest" and this weekend's opener, "Hamlet."

For Tchaikovsky, the dominant theme of "Hamlet" was the implacable hand of fate. "There's a divinity that shapes our ends," observes Hamlet in Act V, "Rough-hew them how we will." First performed in 1888, Tchaikovsy's "Hamlet" overture is a late work (the composer died in 1893) and shows the obsession with fate that permeates both his "Symphony No. 4" from 1878 and his "Symphony No. 5," which first saw the light of day in the same year as "Hamlet".

The "fate" theme shows up in the opening lento lugubre in the violas and cellos, announced by a portentous roll of the tympani. Hamlet broods in the strings until muted horns strike midnight and the ghost appears amid brass and percussion. Ophelia shows up briefly as a sad little melody for the oboe about of third of the way in, but overall the mood is one of high drama and tragedy until (to quote critic Herbert Glass), "the piece ends in the F-minor gloom of its misty beginnings."

"Hamlet" was originally intended to be part of a complete set of incidental music for a French-language production of the play that the actor/impresario Lucien Guitry was preparing for a tour. That project fell through, and by the time Guitry asked Tchaikovsky to revive it in 1891 (this time for a farewell performance at the Mikhaylovsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg) the composer was suffering from exhaustion and other health problems. He recycled a shortened version of the concert overture as the curtain raiser for the play and cobbled together a mix of old and new material for the other 16 numbers. However, he reportedly didn't think much of the results, and the complete score is rarely heard, although you can find it on CD.

Maxim Shostakovich
By Koch, Eric / Anefo - Dutch National Archives,
The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands
Persbureau, 1945-1989
This weekend's non-Shakespeare piece, Shostakovich's "Piano Concerto No. 2" is considerably brighter in its outlook. The product of a short-lived thaw in artistic repression the USSR in 1957, the concerto is an unambiguously (and uncharacteristically) happy work. Written for the composer's son Maxim and first performed by Maxim on his 19th birthday, the piece zips through three short movements in around 20 minutes, concluding with a slightly satirical nod to the Hanon finger exercises that Maxim undoubtedly knew well from his years at the Moscow Conservatory. It is, in short, an irresistible work.

The soloist for the concerto will be the young (born in 1986) Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin, whose star began rising when he claimed First Prize in the 2010 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels at the age of 23. A month later, the New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini praised his "accomplished performance" of Schumann's challenging "Symphonic √Čtudes" in a solo recital, and other critics have been similarly impressed. "Kozhukhin possesses an impeccable technique," wrote Lawrence Bumden for the Miami Herald in 2010. "He can play with total accuracy at extreme speeds and tricky passages seem to bring out extra dynamism in his performances. Kozhukhin matches his remarkable technical arsenal with acute musicianship and interpretive depth." This will be his debut appearance with the SLSO, so I look forward to seeing what he and Mr. Varga do with the piece.

The main event this weekend is a suite from Prokofiev's score for the ballet "Romeo and Juliet," first performed in 1938. It's among his most popular compositions, but Prokofiev paid a price for it that's almost as tragic as the story it tells.

Lured back from Paris to Leningrad in 1934 with promises of lucrative commissions and a relatively free hand in composing the ballet for the Bolshoi Theatre, he soon discovered that the hand of ideologically motivated censorship was as heavy as that of fate in "Hamlet." As Princeton University scholar Simon Morrison (author of The People's Artist: Prokofiev's Soviet Years) noted in a paper at a Columbia University symposium:
Prokofiev suffered more than his share of disappointments in his career, and upon relocating from Paris to Moscow in 1936, had more than his share of unpleasant encounters with cultural officials. He adapted to the constraints imposed on him by the Stalinist regime as best he could. His talent overcame—even benefited from—outside control, a phenomenon that undermines the Western musicological assumption that Soviet artists were passive victims of brutal, crude, and rigid politics. Yet from the start, Romeo and Juliet had a particularly hard time of it, enduring second-guessing, reworking, and censorship. In his final years, Prokofiev was able to take pride in its success, but he spent many years resenting the changes that had been imposed on it to the ending, the dramatic structure of the first and second acts, the relationship between solo and ensemble numbers, and the orchestration.
Prokofiev in 1918
And it wasn't just the music that suffered. As Linda B. Glaser writes in the March 21, 2011, Cornell Chronicle, "the bureaucrat who commissioned 'Romeo and Juliet' was executed, as was the Central Committee flunky who approved the ballet's original happy ending. Even the scenarist who inspired Prokofiev to write the ballet ended up dead. Authorities exiled Prokofiev's first wife to the Gulag, and in 1938 confiscated Prokofiev's passport, determining that he needed 'ideological correctin' for too much Western influence."

None of this takes away from the greatness of the music you'll hear this weekend, but it does illustrate how difficult it can be to hold on to artistic integrity (or even basic human dignity) in the face of implacable autocracy. It's something we should perhaps bear in mind during the current round of national elections.

Gilbert Varga conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and piano soloist Denis Kozhukhin in music by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. March 5 and 6. The program also includes Tchaikovsky's tone poem Hamlet. Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand. For more information:

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