When confronted with the pressures of living under the autocratic regime of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and its satellites in Eastern Europe between 1917 and 1991, some people responded with silent obedience, some offered eager support and others turned to vodka.
And some, given the rich heritage of Russian culture, made art. “Soviet Transcendence,” this weekend’s Masterworks concerts by the Spokane Symphony, offered works by three composers whose artistic identities emerged from the crucible of Soviet life with striking differences.
Led by resident conductor Morihiko Nakahara and joined by cello soloist Joshua Roman, the orchestra offered a program of works by Arvo Pärt (1935-), Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) that challenged the audience to face some brutal truths and rewarded with the pleasure that comes with the experience of great art.
Estonian composer Pärt, one of the most frequently performed contemporary composers, went through a spiritual and artistic crisis in his 30s while he also was contending with the oppressive supervision of the Soviet occupiers of his native land.
After years of study and introspection, he committed to Eastern Orthodox Christianity and rejected his earlier methods of composition in favor of a style inspired by medieval and early Renaissance chant, which forsakes not only ornament, but also melody and harmonic modulation for extreme simplicity.
In his “Trisagion” (Greek for “thrice holy”) of 1992, Pärt portrays in music a search for simplicity, honesty and truth by casting aside everything that appeals to the senses, everything that is temporary, transitory and mutable. The audience was prepared for these qualities of “Trisagion” by being presented with a partly empty stage.
Only the strings of the orchestra were present. Very softly, low strings hold a single note while violins, without vibrato, begin to play slow repetitions of alternating notes separated by intervals of only one or one-half step.
As soon as a sense of forward momentum begins, the music stops and then begins again. In this way, Pärt forces the realization that truth, or God, exists outside time while humans do not. One might think that playing music of such simplicity would be easy, but, in fact, it is extremely difficult due to the ruthlessly exposed nature of the writing.
Especially in the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, which is alive to the slightest imperfection. Especially of high-frequency sounds, any wavering of pitch or irregularity of bowing would be instantly audible. Under the assured direction of Nakahara, the strings played with the crystalline perfection the composer must have wanted.
From this otherworldly plane is a plunge into the harsh realities of earthly suffering in Shostakovich’s “Cello Concerto No 1 in E-flat major Op. 107” (1959). The concerto is a psychodrama in which the protagonist, the soloist, is shown in the first movement trapped in an oppressive environment depicted by the composer as a mindless but inexorable march.
The soloist tries to free himself from the march by varying the rhythm or interrupting it with witty or passionate commentary, but he is trapped. The progress of the soloist, Shostakovich’s simulacrum of his own suffering soul, is followed through struggle and despair only to have all hope extinguished with the sudden, brutal chords with which the piece concludes.
In his traversal of the solo part, Roman showed himself to be not only a brilliant instrumentalist, but also an artist of real stature. The purity, commitment and discipline of his playing showed him to be the rarest of species: the selfless virtuoso who dedicates his considerable resources to expressing the moral vision of the composer.
When the audience rose to its feet, he thanked them by performing Mark O’Connor’s “Appalachian Waltz,” another piece that puts great virtuosity to work in the service of utter, selfless simplicity.
To represent the voice of militaristic oppression in his concerto, Shostakovich includes a single part for horn. It was taken in these concerts by Katie Upton, appearing in her new role as the orchestra’s principal horn.
Here, and in the Prokofiev symphony that followed, Upton displayed not only admirable security on her notoriously fickle instrument, but also a great range of expression, not always granted to horn players.
In his “Symphony No. 3 in C minor Op. 44, ‘The Fiery Angel’ ” (1928), Prokofiev took what we might call a cathartic approach to dealing with the pressures that he saw emerging after the birth of the Soviet Union.
Recycling work he had done on an unsuccessful opera that deals with terror, menace and demonic possession, Prokofiev created a work in which that turbulence was contained in the formal limits of a conventional symphony.
Its form, if not its content, would have been familiar not only to Tchaikovsky but also to Mozart. In this way, Prokofiev asserts the power of art to overcome the paralysis of fear and anxiety. In contrast to the spare complement of strings demanded by Pärt, Prokofiev fills the stage with a full orchestra featuring five horns, two harps and extra winds and percussion.
Leading such forces through the dense thickets of Prokofiev’s thematic material demands a conductor with not only consummate skill, but also the taste and insight to make the score coherent and meaningful.
Nakahara rolled out this score like a dazzling tapestry, allowing the audience to savor the architectural skill of the composer, as well as his gifts of haunting melody and thrilling orchestration. He seemed to hold the orchestra’s hand through every thorny passage, allowing it to display virtuosity with complete confidence.
Nakahara also showed the very good judgment of not concluding the concert with the emotional downdraft with which the symphony ends, but providing the buoyancy of a tuneful encore: the waltz from the “Masquerade Suite” of Aram Khachaturian, a Soviet composer who did what the regime requested and kept his head down, thus assuring himself of a status in history.
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