Chicago Symphony’s festival opener light on artistic truth but delivers sonic power

May 24, 2014
Jaap van Zweden conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Britten and Shostakovich Thursday night.

Jaap van Zweden conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Britten and Shostakovich Thursday night. File photo: Marco Borggreve

Whatever else one can say about the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s “Truth to Power” festival, Thursday’s opening performance led by Jaap van Zweden undeniably provided the loudest playing heard all season at Orchestra Hall in Shostakovich’s unsubtle “Leningrad” symphony.

For the next three weeks through June 8, the CSO will be spotlighting music of Dmitri Shostakovich, Serge Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten as part of its “Truth to Power” festival, incorporating four CSO programs and a recital by Vladimir Feltsman.

The theme tenuously tying these composers together is that each man “produced works that stirred nations toward hope and a brighter future” and that all “believed that the artist should serve society by creating music that would inspire justice and fairness.” (All artists making a case for injustice and unfairness, please stand up.)

In many ways it makes sense for uniting these three contemporaries—Britten and Shostakovich, particularly, since the two men were great admirers of each other’s music and enjoyed a close professional friendship.

But the generalized “Truth to Power” concept as represented by the four programs on the CSO slate seems both overstated and misapplied. Superb as his best music is, Benjamin Britten was about as establishment a figure as a gay composer could be in mid-20th-century England. Prokofiev’s subversive streak confined itself entirely to musical matters and he studiously avoided conflicts with the Soviet commissars after moving back to his homeland.

Unlike Mstislav Rostropovich, Andrei Sakharov, and other courageous Russian dissidents, Shostakovich didn’t take any public political stands against the Soviet power structure and allowed himself to be used as a propaganda tool by the communist regime’s leaders. Yet his finest music—searching, fragile, desolate and despairing—speaks eloquently as to his true feelings.

A case can be made for the “Truth to Power” tag in Shostakovich’s case by performing some of the works that got him into trouble with the Soviet cultural commissars: the turbulent, Mahler-on-acid Symphony No. 4; the dark, sexually explicit opera that infuriated Stalin, Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District; or the Symphony No. 13 “Babi Yar,” Shostakovich’s unambiguous response to official Soviet anti-Semitism.

Yet none of these works are being performed. In fact, the CSO festival is offering Shostakovich’s three most familiar symphonies (Nos. 5, 7 and 9), as well as popular works of Prokofiev and Britten that have little, if anything, to do with an artist’s credo against malign and oppressive forces. How the heck does Britten’s Violin Concerto speak “truth to power”?

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad”, the main work on Thursday’s concert, seems especially ill-chosen as an example of artistic courage, despite its anti-German wartime fervor and the hooplah of its initial success. Toscanini fought with Stokowski over the rights to the American premiere of the composer’s wartime paean to his heroic countrymen (Toscanini won), and the success of that debut and ensuing widespread performances made Shostakovich’s name in the West.

Yet in hindsight, it’s hard not to feel that the symphony was wildly overpraised, as much for offering a useful wartime propaganda device for the Allies’ Soviet brothers-in-arms than for its musical substance. Bartok mercilessly skewered its “invaders’ theme” in his Concerto for Orchestra. And postwar even its most celebrated advocates quickly lost their enthusiasm. When shown a copy of the score years after he led the U.S. premiere, Toscanini said, “I conducted that?!”

Even for a composer as highly regarded as Shostakovich, the Symphony No. 7 has not worn well. Spanning 80 minutes and scored for Brobdingnagian forces (triple winds, piano, six percussionists, six trumpets and nine horns), the symphony depicts the assault of the titular city by the German invaders, followed by reflections of a more innocent prewar time, and the ultimate victory over their enemy by the brave Russian people.

Even allowing for justifiable patriotism at a time of dire national emergency, the Seventh is a hard piece to take seriously today, a kind of musical version of Soviet poster art on steroids. The infamous 30-minute opening movement with its slow, massive crescendo as the march theme representing the German army grows into deafening cacophony—a kind of witless militaristic Bolero—stands as one of the most embarrassing inspirations penned by a major composer in the 20th century. The bombastic finale is nearly as bad, exulting in the same tub-thumping banality the first movement attempts to satirize. And, apart from musical matters, it’s hard not to feel queasy listening to any music celebrating a great Soviet victory when the country’s current expansionist-minded president is engaging in a slow-motion dismemberment of Ukraine.

As shown in previous outings with the CSO, Jaap van Zweden’s mastery of the long line and purposeful, freshly scrubbed intensity are well-suited to Shostakovich. The Dutch conductor made no apologies for the work’s excess and the cochlea-shaking climaxes were impeccably balanced Thursday even with a hundred musicians roaring.

Where the performance did score was in the firm sense of momentum, the widely terraced dynamics van Zweden elicited, and the smart, distinctive playing of individual CSO members: Cynthia Yeh’s stamina and dynamic control on the snare drum in the long crescendo; the conversational duet between Eugene Izotov’s oboe and William Buchman’s bassoon; J. Lawrie Bloom’s light-footed bass clarinet solo, and the ray of light offered by Mathieu Dufour’s flute solo in the brooding Adagio.

The brief first half consisted of the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes. Van Zweden led a more unbridled account of this music than one usually hears. Even “Sunday Morning” was more tense than bucolic, and if the salt-air atmosphere was somewhat lacking, van Zweden provided dramatic urgency and nerve-wracked intensity, whipping up a cataclysmic fury in the storm section.

Elsewhere there were odd slips, including a couple late xylophone notes and dry, less-then-ethereal playing from the assistant principal flute. Li-Kuo Chang’s gentle viola solo in the Passacaglia painted Grimes’ vulnerable apprentice with fine sensitivity.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.; 312-294-3000.

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