Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Shadows and Fog

May 10, 2007

Galina Ustvolskaya
Tuesday was the opening show in the LA Philharmonic’s “Shadow of Stalin” series meant to examine the impact his regime had on composers and music from the Soviet Union and the eastern block countries of the period. The first concert in the series consisted of four chamber works including Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes Op. 34, and his Sonata for Two Violins, Op.56. Also on the program was Galina Ustvolskaya’s Clarinet Trio and Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67. This grouping was intended to demonstrate how Stalin’s political suppression forever altered Russian music over the course of the century. Of course Mark Swed’s excellent review in the LA Times makes this argument far more eloquently than I could ever hope to do here or elsewhere. The problem for me with this evening was that Swed does a better job of it than the musical performance did itself.

I mean the overall theme of this series seems legitimate enough for a program, but I’m not really sure how one is supposed to actually read political influence in a piece of music. Often times it seems that it all boils down to nothing more than political oppression = dissonance, but is that really all there is? This programming concept is in contrast to LA Opera and James Conlon’s “Recovered Voices” project looking at composers whose works were suppressed by the Third Reich. However, the goal there is different. As Conlon himself pointed out in the introductory remarks to his recent concerts, the music and composers, whose works are feature in “Recovered Voices," don’t necessarily have anything in common, and their music was rarely a direct response to the immediate political conditions that they found themselves in. While the music may certainly have been influenced by the times, the point for him is to “recover” a musical heritage in all its variety that was almost “lost” due to the actions of an evil regime.

The playing itself during the concert by the Philharmonic members was quite good but I found the tone of pianist Lina Targonsky during both the Shostakovich and Prokofiev somewhat dull. David Howard, the Phil’s clarinetist turned in two fantastic performances, as did violinist Johnny Lee who participated in the somber and simple Clarinet Trio as well as the Violin Sonata. Perhaps, I am being too hasty, however. There are a number of very fine programs scheduled for this series, including Salonen conducting some of his specialties such as Lutoslawski. Perhaps all will be revealed to me in time.

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