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.

 

 

 

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.

 

Wild About Harry: Belafonte @ Berklee

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A celebration of Harry Belafonte’s life and music at Berklee.

Great love fest and concert last night for the ever-dignified and charismatic Harry Belafonte, the “High School drop out getting an Honorary Degree from Berklee.”  At the age of 87, Belafonte stopped singing in public a few years ago,though you could spot him in the finale at least mouthing the words to “We Are the World,” the 1980s megahit for African famine relief that Belafonte brought in to being.

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Moments before awarded Harry Belafonte his honorary doctorate, Berklee President Roger Brown speaks about his remarkable career.

That’s just one of an incredible list of accomplishments recited by Berklee president Roger Brown before conferring an honorary Doctor of Music to the singer, songwriter, and activist, who noted that “Belafonte” literally translates as “fountain of beautiful things.”  The tone and feel-good vibe of the event (not to mention some incredible performances by Berklee students) is nicely summarized in today’s Boston Globe:

No artist has worked harder on behalf of truth and social justice than Belafonte. He bailed out Martin Luther King Jr. from a Birmingham, Ala., jail; was John F. Kennedy’s cultural ambassador to the Peace Corps; and helped raise more than $50 million for humanitarian aid in Africa by organizing the recording of “We Are the World.”

That is how the current generation of Berklee College of Music students knows the singer, said Larry Watson, the professor who produced the show, introducing a rousing encore of the song. But to an earlier generation — long before Michael Jackson crowned himself the King of Pop — Belafonte was the “King of Calypso.” He was the first recording artist to sell a million copies of a single album, and he had enduring hits with “Matilda” and “The Banana Boat Song” (that’s “Day O” to fans of “Beetlejuice” or “The Muppet Show”), both of which were part of the program presented by four dozen or so colorfully attired students.

When it came time for Belafonte to speak, he was his usual poignant, gripping, and humorous self,  recalling the first time he went onstage to sing at a jazz club in New York.   The great jazz pianist Al Haig had agreed to let him work up a short set of standards, beginning with “Pennies from Heaven.”   But, when the moment came, Belafonte recalled,  “Up jumped Max Roach to sit behind the drums. And then Tommy Potter picked up a bass.  Charlie Parker sat down with his sax. So I looked around at my backup band.  And I haven’t looked back since.”

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Parting shot from Belafonte: “After this, I’m going home and smoking a joint.”

A Prayer for Ukraine

TARAS SHEVCHENKO 1814 - 1861 BARD OF UKRAINE

TARAS SHEVCHENKO
1814 – 1861
BARD OF UKRAINE

When shall we get ourselves a Washington
To promulgate his new and righteous law?
But someday we shall surely find the man!

Taras Shevchenko, 1848

Witnessing the dramatic events happening in Kiev this past week made me think of two of the original “freedom fighters” for Ukrainian nationalism: The country’s “national bard” Taras Shevchenko, as well as the Ukrainian composer who set his words to music, Mykola Lysenko.

I discovered Shevchenko quite by accident.  There is a statue erected in his honor at the corner of 22nd and P Streets NW in Washington, D.C., just a few blocks away from the old NPR headquarters on M street, and across the street from the legendary DC beer joint The Brickskeller, (“featuring beers from Argentina to Zimbabwe”) the preferred postgame pizza-and-beer location for the NPR softball team.  And at about the same time, we received an over-the-transom submission to Performance Today of a concert devoted to works by Ukrainian (!) composers – quite a novelty in the late ’80s.  (As was, by the way, the idea of offering scores of imported beers on tap…).

But 1988 was a Millennium Year for Ukraine, marking the 1000th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity in the forerunner state of Kievan Rus.’ Sure enough, the recording featured an abundance of works by both Dmitry Bortniansky (1751-1825) and Lysenko (1842-1912), with many of the latter’s pieces featuring texts by Shevchenko. Turns out the Lysenko set more than 80 of his fellow Ukrainian’s works to music.  One of the most famous was “The Days Pass By,” long a staple in the repertoire of Ukrainian-American bass Paul Plishka (whom I think sang it on the program but can’t be sure.)

Paul Plishka: Days Pass

Both Shevchenko and later, Lysenko were imprisoned in their fight for Ukrainian independence – and it’s hard not to read the lyrics as sort of Shevchenko’s version of MLK’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”  Others interpret the words as Shevchenko’s scorn for the laziness of his compatriots, “in which somnolent inactivity is seen as far worse than death in chains,” according to the Encylopedia of Ukraine.  Regardless, it’s a powerful mixture of music and text, and easy to understand why it’s still a part of Ukrainian culture to this day:

 
 
The days pass by, the nights pass by
As does summer. Yellowed leaves
Rustle, eyes grow dim,
Thoughts fall asleep, the heart sleeps,
All has gone to rest, and I don’t know
Whether I’m alive or will live,
Or whether I’m rushing like this through the world,
For I’m no longer weeping or laughing
My fate, fate, where are you now?
I have none;
If you begrudge me a good one, Lord,
Then give me a bad one!
Let a walking man not sleep,
To die in spirit
And knock about the entire world
Like a rotten stump.
But let me live, with my heart live
And love people.
And if not then curse
And burn the world!
It’s horrible to end up in chains
To die in captivity,
But it’s worse to be free
And to sleep, and sleep, and sleep
And to fall asleep forever,
And to leave no trace
At all, as if it were all the same
Whether you had lived or died!
Fate, where are you, fate where are you?
I have none!
If you begrudge me a good one, Lord,
Then give me a bad one! A bad one!

 

Sadly, I couldn’t find any recordings by Plishka of that song to share via YouTube, but I remember to  decipher enough Cyrillic to find this ancient recording by the Ukrainian baritone Mikhail Grishko, one of the great voices of the Stalin era, and almost completely unknown in the West.

Back to the composer, Mykola Lysenko.  Seems I’m not the only one whose curiosity has been stirred about the story of this early Ukrainian nationalist of late. Here’s an excerpt from a recent syndicated Washington Post called “9 Questions about Ukraine You Were Too Embarrassed To Ask:”

5. This is getting complicated. Can we take a music break?

Great idea. Ukraine has a rich tradition of folk and popular music, including one of their many classical greats, Mykola Lysenko. A Ukrainian nationalist, and by his death in 1912 a major star, Lysenko loved to incorporate Ukrainian folk melodies into his compositions – for example, his simple but beautiful Second Ukrainian Rhapsody for piano.

Lysenko’s life, more than a century ago, charted many of the same issues driving today’s crisis. Ukraine was then a part of Imperial Russia, which pushed composers and musicians to use only the Russian language. Lysenko refused, composing two operas in Ukrainian, which he refused to translate into Russian, even though this meant they could never be performed in Moscow. Because an 1876 Tsarist decree banned the use of Ukrainian in print, Lysenko had to have his scores printed in secret abroad. He died a hero to Ukrainians, his music cherished by contemporaries like Pyotr Tchaikovsky, but recordings are criminally difficult to find today.

Then there’s the Feb. 21 edition of Classicallite: “Ukrainian Unrest, or what the late Nationalist Composer Mykola Lysenko would do to President Putin.”

Mykola Vitaliyovych Lysenko, the late Ukrainian composer, pianist and scholar, was lauded for his nationalism. He refused to write his operas in Russian, which were eventually banned by the czars in 1876. Not too surprisingly, modern day Russia seems vaguely similar to imperial Russia, what with both admins trying to buttress the motherland like a rabid dog cornering a small child (who speaks half-Russian, half-Ukrainian, I might add).

Alas, recordings of Lysenko’s compositions–like the identity of that masked pianist–are criminally difficult to procure. And as the flames of revolution further engulf a war-torn nation, his work will likely become more difficult to find.  Regardless, he died a hero to Ukrainians everywhere, cherished by his sympathetic contemporary Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. And as Lysenko’s land turns to charred rubble today, I know that he would still be a vocal proponent of Ukrainian independence.

Then there’s the unofficial Ukrainian National Anthem: “A Prayer for Ukraine,”  composed by….you guessed it:

Oh Lord, Almighty and Only
for us our Ukraine, please, keep
by freedom’s and the rays of light
you set her in light.

Oh, and by the by, the story of getting the Schevchenko statue erected in Washington is another fascinating tale of Cold War intrigue, richly detailed in an article in Ukrainian Week:

The dramatic campaign to build the Shevchenko monument continued for five years. “Two superpowers, American and Soviet, were pitted against each other,” wrote Antin Drahan in his book Shevchenko in Washington. The Soviet embassy twice appealed to the U.S. Department of State demanding plans for the monument be scrapped. It was joined by the puppet representation of the Ukrainian SSR in the UN.
Hostile anti-Ukrainian forces rallied around The Washington Post. The newspaper painstakingly portrayed Shevchenko as a hater of Catholics, Orthodox, Russians, Poles, and Jews and, at the same time, as a harbinger of communism. Reputed as a respectable and liberal periodical, it pressed the Congress to repeal the resolution it had passed. Tensions mounted after the site was dedicated when Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall decided, influenced by an anti-Ukrainian article in The Washington Post, to revise the already decided question. However, these attempts eventually failed.
Sure enough, the statue was unveiled 50 years ago, to these words by then-President Lyndon Johnson:  “[Shevchenko] was more than a Ukrainian — he was a statesman and citizen of the world. He was more than a poet — he was a valiant crusader for the rights and freedom of men. He used verse to carry on a determined fight for freedom.”

A President’s Day Salute: Alexander Reinagle: The First “First Family” Music Teacher

From George Washington’s diary: Tuesday, June 12, 1787:

“Dined at Mr. Morris’s and drunk Tea there. Went afterwards to the concert at the City Tavern.”

Washington was in Philadelphia for what at the time was called “The Federal Convention,”  and we now call the Constitutional Convention, that led to the creation of the modern American state.  Notwithstanding all of the politics and intrigues, however, Washington still found time to attend a number of events in what was at the time the nation’s cultural center.  And on this particular evening he attended a concert by a newly-arrived and highly-regarded “composer, conductor, pianist, and theatrical manager” named Alexander Reinagle.

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Washington apparently liked what he heard, for it marked the start of a long friendship between the English-born musician and the nation’s first President.  Reinagle was actually born the same year as Mozart (1756), and died the same year as Haydn (1809).  He came to the US in 1786, first living in New York before taking up residence in Philadelphia, then emerging as the young nation’s cultural center.

George Washington's Favorite Composer

George Washington’s Favorite Composer

In 1789, during Washington’s journey from Philadelphia to New York for his inauguration as the nation’s first President,  Reinagle supposedly composed a “Chorus”, with the words, “Welcome Mighty Chief, Once More!” which the composer rather puffily, (and some contend, untruthfully) put on the frontspiece,

Chorus Sung Before Gen. Washington as he passed under the Triumphal Arch raised on the bridge at Trenton April 21st 1789.   Set to music and dedicated by permission to Mrs. Washington by A. Reinagle… Philadelphia.

Washington was impressed enough with Reinagle that he hired him to give keyboard lessons to Washington’s step-grandaughter Nellie Custis…and to order a top-of-the-line double-manual harpsichord for their homes in Philadelphia and eventually at Mount Vernon…where it still can be seen today!

George Washington's harpsichord

As for Nellie’s proficiency at the instrument, a great article on the Mount Vernon website has her brother remembering  she had to practice”very long and very unwillingly at the harpsichord. . .the poor girl would play and cry, and cry and play, for long hours, under the immediate eye of her grandmother, a rigid disciplinarian in all things.”  Though apparently not for nought:

Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, a Polish nobleman who visited Mount Vernon for around two weeks in June of 1798, wrote of Nelly that, “Her sweetness is equal to her beauty, and this being, so perfect of form, possesses all the talents: she plays the harpsichord, sings, draws better than any woman in America or even in Europe.” On the last night of his visit, he wrote sadly, “In the evening, for the last time, pretty Miss Custis sang and played on the harpsichord.”

Several Reinagle compositions survive in the Nellie Custis collection of sheet music at Mount Vernon, and upon  Washington’s death in 1799, he composed a Monody on the Death of George Washington.   And the “First Composer” didn’t stop at Washington, his output also includes the Federal March, President Madison’s March and Mrs. Madison’s Minuet. 

Far more substantial and interesting are the four extended keyboard sonatas he composed in the style of his idol C.P.E. Bach, whom Reinagle had known during his travels in Europe.  The so-called “Philadelphia Sonatas” are the only pieces of Reinagle’s that really ever get any hearing at all.  Check out this performance in the WGBH Fraser Performance Studio by Handel & Haydn Society keyboardist Ian Watson.

For Pete’s Sake

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I’ve been thinking for several days now about what I could say about Pete Seeger that hasn’t already been said, seen, or heard. Certainly it is impossible to overstate his influence on my generation. “How to Play the Five String Banjo” – both the tattered red music book and ten-inch LP  from 1954- were as ubiquitous in the households of my youth as the Glenn Gould Goldbergs, the Ormandy “Messiah” recording with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and Kind of Blue, if not more so.  His was the first concert I ever attended in my life…in the glorious trappings of a school gymnasium in Acton, (or was it Maynard? or Harvard?) Mass. in 1963. As part of the concert Pete led a singalong of “Froggy Went a Courting” just for us wee ones, and I remember it to this day.  (And was totally tickled when Springsteen chose it for his tribute album The Seeger Sessions.)

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I’m certain it was the first time I had ever been invited to sing in my life. And decades later I joined the decidedly nonexclusive club of folks who have produced programs about Pete’s remarkable life.

But none of that is particularly new, unique nor noteworthy. What might be, however, is the saga of Pete Seeger the public television host: Before finally being “readmitted” to commercial television in the late ’60s, Pete made 39 episodes of a quirky, wonderful, and decidedly low-production-value program called “Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest.” Take a look at Episode 1, with Pete talking about his “distrust of this little magic box,” and then going on to teach us all at home how to play along, and join the chorus…