Arts & Events

MUSIC REVIEW: Berkeley Symphony Performs Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday May 07, 2017 - 02:42:00 PM

Dmitri Shostakovich’s struggles with the Stalinist bureaucracy are well known. The composer was denounced in Pravda for his 1936 opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which was vilified as an offense to good Soviet principles. However, with his immensely popular Fifth Symphony in 1937, Shostakovich was reinstated into official favor. This period lasted until World War II, when Shostakovich and other Russian composers were summoned by the government and had to make public apologies and pledge henceforth to write music for the proletarian masses. When Nikita Kruschev issued a denunciation of Stalin in 1960, a certain thaw ensued in the artistic circles of the Soviet Union. However, when the young poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko published in 1961 his incendiary poem Babi Yar and lifted the veil on anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, bringing into the open the Soviet silence over Nazi Germany’s wartime massacre of 34,000 Russian Jews at the ravine of Babi Yar near Kiev, Kruschev lashed out at Yevtushenko and launched a new campaign for “ideological purity” in the arts. However, this did not stop Shostakovich, who had been deeply moved by Yevtushenko’s poem, from deciding to set Babi Yar to music. Shostakovich composed the opening section of his 13th Symphony to Yevtushenko’s poem, and he had already completed it when he met with Yesvtushenko to request permission to set Babi Yar to music. Yevtushenko not only granted Shostakovich permission, he also penned at the composer’s urging a new section entitled “Fears” to be included in the poem and the symphony. The result is a searing portrait of official unwillingness to acknowledge anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union and the fears the Russian people felt about speaking out on any controversial subject. 

Berkeley Symphony took on the task of performing the monumental 13th Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich on Thursday, May 4. Barely a month before their one-night only performance of this work, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko died in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he had for many years taught at the university. It was announced from the stage of Zellerbach Hall that as far as was known this was the first performance of this work in the USA or anywhere since Yevtushenko’s death. Replacing Berkeley Symphony’s Music Director and Principal Conductor Joana Carneiro, who recently gave birth to triplets, was German Conductor Christian Reif, whose local debut with the San Francisco Symphony in 2015 was widely acclaimed. Russian bass Denis Sedov was the vocal soloist, and the 40-strong bass chorus involved men from alumni of UC Berkeley’s Chamber Chorus, alumni of the Pacific Boychoir Academy, and members of the St. John of San Francisco Russian Orthodox Chorale. The Chorusmaster was Marika Kuzma. Before the performance of Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony, four actors recited Yevtushenko’s poem Babi Yar. The actors were Bonnie Akomoto, L. Peter Callendar, Arje Shaw, and Victor Talmadge. 

Once the music got underway, Shostakovich was quick to offer a tolling bell and a four-note chromatic phrase that scholars identified as the “Babi Yar motif.” This motif undergoes many variations throughout the opening movement of the 13th Symphony, which ultimately closes with a blazing finale. St. Petersburg-born bass Denis Sedov established right away his rich stentorian voice as he sang the text of Yevtushenko’s poem in the original Russian. The lights in Zellerbach Hall were lit sufficiently for the audience to follow the words that were printed in the program in both Russian and English, the latter in a translation by Marika Kuzma. Denis Sedov’s 

diction was so clear that even a non-Russian speaker like me was easily able to follow the Russian text of Yevtushenko’s Babi Yar. Indeed, Sedov was so good he reminded me of the great tradition of Russian basses such as Fyodor Chaliapin and Boris Christoff.  

The second movement, entitled Humor, is actually an homage to the use of sardonic humor as a subversive element against the imposition of authoritarian intrusions in all aspects of Soviet life. The third movement, entitled In the Store, begins with somber cellos and basses, punctuated by repeated claps from a wood block. This movement eulogizes the Russian women who lined up in the stores hoping to purchase whatever meager foodstuffs and supplies happened to be available that day. The women of Russia, it is sung by the bass choir, are the nation’s conscience and pride. With Denis Sedov chiming in, the choir declares loudly that, “All on earth is in their power,- they are given so much strength. To short-change them, it is shameful. To short-weigh them is a sin.”  

The fourth movement, Fears, offers a retrospective look back on the years when the Stalinist bureaucracy made everyone fear to speak out on any subject that might be controversial. Cellos and basses open this movement with ominous low notes, then Denis Sedov offers a lengthy discourse on the way the Soviet leaders tamed and silenced the people, who dwelt in secret fear of a knock at the door. 

The fifth and final movement, Career, offers meditations on the careers of men such as Galileo, who insisted on truth against the teachings of the Church, or of men such as Shakespeare, Pasteur, Newton, and Tolstoy. Praised too are the nameless doctors who died fighting cholera. This movement opens with wry flutings that perfectly set the tone for Yevtushenko’s wry celebration of Galileo. At the work’s conclusion, Yevtushenko’s final words are sung quietly by Denis Sedov: “I am making my career thus: by my not pursuing it.” A gong sounds, strings offer a light touch, and a few notes on piano and celesta bring the 13th Symphony to a close.  

Conductor Christian Reif brought out the rich sonorities of Shostakovich’s orchestration, and the singing by soloist Denis Sedov was thrillingly gripping throughout, aided and abetted by the all-male bass choir. In truth, there are not many opportunities to hear a live performance of Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony; and it seemed very fitting, even if conincidental, that the Berkeley Symphony happened to perform this work so soon after the death of Yevgeny Yevtushenko.