Truth To Power IIIa: Exploring the Shostakovich “Year 1905” Symphony

Following the post about the Shostakovich Symphony No. 11, here’s the “guided tour” to the symphony, from the perspective of conductor Hugh Wolff and some of the brilliant young NEC Philharmonia performers. I really enjoyed putting this together with Andrew Hurlbut and the NEC video folks, with invaluable help from James David Jacobs.

 

Truth To Power III: Shostakovich’s “Year 1905” Symphony

So what is the Symphony No. 11?  Shostakovich’s most Russian/ Mussorgskian work?  A piece of cinematic agit-prop?  A commentary on the crushed Hungarian uprising? A deeply reflective “Requiem for a Generation,” as Shostakovich claimed, according to [Solomon] Volkov’s controversial memoir?  The work of a washed-up genius who, after 20 years of suppression, has succumbed to the political juggernaut? A beautifully organized work that speaks tragically to the inevitable recurrence of despotism?

NEC website, April 2014

 

I have to be honest with you: After living with this symphony for the last two months, I still can’t make up my mind.  Parts of it are searingly, heartrendingly poignant; others definitely veer towards the kitsch.

What I do know is that conductor Hugh Wolff and the NEC Philharmonia certainly rose to the challenge of performing this sprawling, hour-long symphony at Boston’s Symphony Hall. Regardless of the decidedly mixed critical opinion, it strikes me as a really hard piece to play, with a huge number of forces (celeste, two harps, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, full battery of percussion) being asked to play both with tremendous, brutish force as well as precise, controlled delicacy.  Not to mention those moments of extreme, naked exposure – just ask the trumpets, horns, flutes, or bassoons!  Or for that matter, just check out the achingly long lines of the English horn solo in the final movement.

Above all, it strikes me as a symphony requiring enormous concentration both to conduct and to perform. The symphony clocks in at just over an hour, after all.  And from a producer’s perspective, I certainly was exhausted at the end! But all in a day’s work for Hugh Wolff, who did a masterful job of keeping all the forces together, and sculpting a shape and arc out of the sprawl.

Not to mention calming the NEC student’s nerves – playing in Symphony Hall for the first time in four years.  Playing a piece that I was surprised to discover had never been performed by the hall’s “house band.” (Neither Seiji Ozawa nor James Levine were fans of DSCH, but…not even any guest conductors?).

This was the biggest and hardest of the three pieces on the program, (the others being the Beethoven “Egmont” Overture and the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1), and we’re going to produce them in reverse order. It’s all part of NEC’s season-long series of thematic presentations called Truth to Power, and I had the great pleasure of directing the shoot at Symphony Hall.  Today’s post contains the whole symphony; the story behind it will come next.

 

 

 

Storytelling: Where Have You Gone, Rosie The Riveter?

300px-Cambridge_Bridge_postcard

“People really haven’t been riveting for quite a while,” said Mary Grieco, metals control engineer for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. “It’s a learning curve for everybody. There are no specifications anymore that tell you how to rivet, so we make the best engineering judgment on how to do it.”

 

 

On the heels of the excellent Marketplace story discussing the decline of – and the attempt to, er, “kick start” – American Industrial Design, comes a fascinating story in today’s local rag explaining just why it’s going to take so long to refurbish the iconic Longfellow Bridge spanning the Charles River between Cambridge and Boston.   Turns out it’s all about rivets and rocks … or to be more precise, the elusive, prized Rockport Granite – “The Granite of Character.”  Worth a read!

Description of Rockport Granite, taken from Sweet's Catalogue of Building Construction, 1915

Description of Rockport Granite, taken from Sweet’s Catalogue of Building Construction, 1915

Days of Remembrance: George Horner and Yo-Yo Ma

Extraordinary. Dr. George Horner, Terezin and Auschwitz survivor, performing music he played at at the Terezin concentration camp seven decades earlier. Only this time, he’s at Symphony Hall in Boston, joined by no less a figure than Yo-Yo Ma.  The 90-year old Horner says quite simply:  “Without music, I wouldn’t be here.”   Thanks to the Terezin Music Foundation for posting this video.

A Milestone of the Millennium: Bach’s St. Matthew Passion

What an unexpected delight on Good Friday to see today’s excellent Deceptive Cadence blog from my old my mates at NPR devoted to a program we produced 14 years ago, as part of our ambitious Milestones of the Millennium series.

A Visitor’s Guide To Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’

And I do mean ambitious: We attempted nothing less than to “create a picture in sound of the pivotal events, places, movements, artists and musical works of the past 1000 years” through what amounted to a weekly documentary folded into our ongoing five-day-a-week production of Performance Today.   Oh yeah, and also with “build outs” on this newfangled Interwebs thingy.

PT’s Milestones of the Millennium Series

But wait -there was more! We also entered into a partnership with Sony Classical to create an entire Milestones of the Millennium CD project:  “The program series will be accompanied by Sony’s release of historic recordings highlighting the development of music over the past 1000 years. Each Sony Classical compact disc will contain musical choices inspired by the series, with liner notes written by the NPR commentators.”

High concept as hell, balanced by decidedly modest sales in the marketplace.  Doubt anyone has the entire collection, but I was surprised to see that after being out of print for quite some time, Sony has now made a few of the titles available as MP3 downloads on Amazon and other sites.  And you do see the odd CD copy for sale here and there.

But, bacj-s-bach-the-brook-and-the-wellspring-national-public-radio-milestones-of-the-millennium-0.jpgk to Bach:  Of the entire two years’ worth of productions, this program on Bach’s St. Matthew Passion was one of the very best, hosted by NPR’s Lynn Neary and produced by Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr.  It’s a “guided tour” through Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, with commentary from such luminaries as noated Bach scholars Christoph Wolff and MIchael Marissen, tenor Ian Bostridge, conductors Joshua Rifkin,Ton Koopman, and Kenneth Slowik, as well as soprano Ann Monoyios.  Take a listen here.

Incidentally, Bach was the subject of the very first MIlestones of Millennium program, which aired January 1, 1999.  It was called  Johann Sebastian Bach: The Brook and the Wellspring, featuring a commentary by the Boston Conservatory’s Jan Swafford“Using the metaphor suggested by the composer’s name (“Bach” is German for “brook”), Swafford explains how Bach emerged from a family of musicians to become perhaps the greatest master and innovator of all time.”

The Brook and the Wellspring

Dvorak’s White Grand – The Saga of the Petrof Piano

Rummaging around in the proverbial shoebox of old photos from an old Euro vacation, i ran across a Throwback Thursday-worthy shot of me tickling the ivories on Antonín Dvořák’s own ivory-colored piano.

BKR at the Dvorak Piano

Did Dvorak actually own this gilded white grand?

The photo was taken at the Dvorak Museum in a leafy section of Prague, in a restored Baroque mansion called – and, no, I’m not making this up – “Villa Amerika” – appropriate for the composer who became so famous in the New World, I suppose!   I recall it was in a different location when I visited there in the late ’90s, but today, the white piano now gets pride of place in a small concert hall on the second floor, perched below an ornate frescoed ceiling.

 

But it got me to wondering about the Museum and more still about its Liberace-esque gilded white grand.  Did Dvorak really live there?  Did he actually play that instrument?  And what kind of a piano was it, exactly?

 

Villa Amerika - the Dvorak Museum in Prague

Villa Amerika – the Dvorak Museum in Prague

Dvorak Museum Concert Hall

The White Piano at home

 

The answers: 1) No, Dvorak actually lived in a small place not far away, on Zitna street.  But the Museum holds a lot of his various artifacts, including his viola.

2) Doubtful. Since I visited, the Museum has subsequently acquired Dvorak’s actual piano, a beautiful mahogany 1879 Bösendorfer, built in Vienna.

3) The piano, it turns out, is a Petrof, the storied family-owned Czech manufacturer run by a fifth-generation descendent of founder Antonin Petrof, born just two years before Dvorak.   And therein lies a tale!

It turns out that the company went into business in 1864 in the central Czech town of Hradec Králové, about two hours east of Prague, after young Antonin returned from an apprenticeship in Vienna and persuaded his father to turn their cabinet-making business into a piano factory.    And the apogee of success happened for both “Tonys” at about the same time: Just as Dvorak was returning from “Amerika” and about to take up the directorship of the Prague Conservatory, Antonín Petrof is appointed by the Emperor as the court piano-builder for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

But after that the story becomes a tale of booms, busts, war, and then the advent of the Iron Curtain.  In 1948, the Petrof factory was nationalized, and became a state-run factory of a profoundly diminished reputation until the Petrof family got their company back in 1993.  And if you do the math, that means that the Petrof company is 150 years old this year!

Read more about the Petrof Piano Saga here: an amazing story of courage, determination, and a family’s extraordinary commitment to exemplary piano building tradition...and check out this video visit to the Petrof Piano factory below, replete with the roll call (with a few hilarious misspellings) of Petrof piano artists,including Ray Charles (who even had one in his home), Count Basie, Bill Evans, Mal Waldron, Lynne Arriale, Richard Clayderman (!), and Jacques Loussier.

Ray Charles' favorite piano brand?

Ray Charles’ favorite piano brand?

Further research reveals that the Petrof pianos have long been the house-supplied instruments in the storied Rudolfinum in Prague, where their rather heavy action and even regulation was preferred by such luminaries as Rudolf Firkusny, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, and Ivan Moravec.   (One of Moravec’s great recordings: a 1963 disc of pieces by Chopin, Mozart, and Beethoven, was recorded on a Petrof.)

Then there’s the Petrof on display in the glittering concert hall in Prague Castle. Check out this video of violinist Josef Suk and pianist Jan Panenka playing Dvorak, natch:

 

But I was still curious to hear what that gilded white Petrof in the Dvorak museum sounded like.  So, after a lot of interet scouring, I did come up with a grainy video containing Dvorak Romance for violin and piano, Op. 11, as well as Chopin’s Ballade No. 3.  Incomplete performances, sadly, but complete enough to reveal that Dvorak’s white Petrov looks far better than it sounds…

 

 

The Great War Project

Look no further than yesterday’s speech by Obama for proof of the long-lasting global impact of “The War to End All Wars,” which started 100 years ago.  Enough that some former colleagues from NPR have launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund terrific, important, and ambitious concept for a radio series.    And it needs your help to become reality:

Beginning in June 2014, we will tell the stories of The Great War through radio documentaries and in shorter radio pieces, all of which will air on public radio stations nationwide and will be available in podcasts.

Our goal is not to tell the definitive history of the war and all its battles. Instead, we will present many important and interesting stories from the war: those of soldiers and civilians, the military technology, the tactics, the poetry, the politics, the societal consequences.

We will present the vast tapestry of World War One and thereby help all of us understand what happened during that time and how that now-forgotten war helped create – for better or worse – the world we live in today.

Check out the video below, and consider making a donation todaythe sand is literally running out of the hourglass.