Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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If it's Sunday, it must be Shostakovich

May 29, 2007

LA Phil with Salonen, Michael Hendrick, and Vladislav Sulimsky
Photo: mine 2007
The LA Philharmonic’s full-orchestra programs in the “Shadow of Stalin” Series got underway last weekend with a show dedicated to composers contemporary to Stalin and directly affected by the restrictions under his regime. The show included Gavriil Popov, Alexander Mosolov and excerpt from Shostakovich’s operatic works. Before all that, though, there was an increasingly omnipresent video. Ever since The Tristan Project everything in the LA Phil’s world seems to need some sort of visual component. Of course, this is a movie town, but not everyone is Bill Viola. This short snippet of video stated the case for the next two weeks' programs, which include works by suppressed Eastern bloc composers Ligeti, Husa, and Lutoslawski and a full–screening of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky with the live accompaniment of the LA Phil playing Prokofiev’s score.

But, of course, all of this business started with Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Stalin’s infamous criticism of the work. The shot across the bow of Soviet-style state-sponsored artistic oppression and the beginning of a particularly dark period in Russian music. Sunday afternoon’s program wrapped up with a wonderful performance of the final scene from Act I featuring Tatiana Pavlovskaya as Katerina and Michael Hendrick as Sergei. Salonen dedicated the performance to the late Rostropovich whom he noted almost single-handedly saved this work, one of the 20th century’s great operas. There was also the suite from Shostakovich’s earlier opera, The Nose, here delivered with great vocal performances from Michael Hendrick and Vladislav Sulimsky. It was a fantastic 25 minutes of humor and percussion pyrotechnics that reinforced the concept that it is not the size of the vocal part one has but what one does with it that really counts.

In addition to these two operatic moments, there were orchestral pieces, as well, from Alexander Mosolov, The Iron Foundry, and Gavriil Popov. Popov, like many of his peers found an outlet by writing film music, and the orchestral suite Salonen led was from one such piece - Komsomol: Patron of Electrification. No, it is not available on DVD; however, whoever gave the pre-concert talk, honored us with a little taste of the genuine article. 1920s modernism at its best, Komsomol roars to life with the promise of mechanization featuring the first, and hopefully not last, theremin solo I’ve hear in the Disney Concert Hall.

With all the novelty and utopian modernism on view with such great vocal performances, what’s there to complain about? Well how about too much of a good thing. I left the show feeling cheated and overly distracted. Just as you were getting settle into one piece it was over and on to the next. I think the show would have been a greater success with just the orchestral pieces and a bigger chunk of just one of the Shostakovich operas, preferably Lady Macbeth. It's hard to complain however when you're having this much fun.


whoever gave the pre-concert talk

Laurel Fay, biographer of Shostakovich, and the person who proved definitively that Volkov's alleged autobiography of Shostakovich is no such thing. She's an important musicologist, and it was quite something for the Phil to bring her in for these events.

-- Robert
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