Thursday, November 02, 2006

Music and politics

7 year old Paavo with Shostakovich and Papa Neeme

Music and politics; In the former Soviet Union, composers walked a tightrope
By Mary Ellyn Hutton
Cincinnati Post, November 2, 2006

Cincinnati Symphony music director Paavo Järvi met composer Dmitri Shostakovich in 1970 in Pärnu, Estonia.

Järvi was 7 years old.

"I remember he was an old man, paralyzed on one side, but very quiet, sort of reserved - big black car. You could feel he was a man of great stature.

"My father (conductor Neeme Järvi) said, 'Remember, you have to stay here because this is a very important man.' But for me, I didn't care, because I wanted to go and play with my sister (Maarika, 6). Now I wish I had more understanding of what happened."

Järvi, 43, understands quite a bit more now, having grown up in Soviet-occupied Estonia and experienced its politics - musical and otherwise - before immigrating to the U.S. in 1980.

He will share some of that knowledge on CSO concerts at 11 a.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday at Music Hall.

Centerpiece of the program, just in time for Election Day, is Shostakovich's wartime Symphony No. 7, the "Leningrad," one of the most politically charged compositions in history.

A blockbuster scored for huge orchestra with extra brass, it was completed in 1941 during the 900-day siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) by the Germans, a cataclysmic event in which more than 1 million people died, most of starvation and exposure.

It was spirited out of the country for performance in the West, including a nationally broadcast concert in New York by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony in July, 1942. That week's Time magazine ran a photo of Shostakovich on its cover. (The CSO led by Eugene Goossens performed the work in January, 1943).

The Russian-themed program also includes Sergei Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2, performed by Dmitri Sitkovetsky, and Leonard Bernstein's "Slava: A Political Overture," a jazzy tribute to cellist/conductor Mstislav Rostropovich derived from Bernstein's 1976 musical "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."

Sitkovetsky and Rostropovich are also émigrés from the former Soviet Union. Sitkovetsky left in 1977, when he was 22. Rostropovich, now 79, emigrated in 1974, having drawn official condemnation for sheltering dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Music and politics are familiar bedfellows.

Famous examples include Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony (dedicated to Napoleon until he crowned himself emperor of France), Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" (a nobleman's "right" to the first night with his servant's wife is foiled) and Verdi's "A Masked Ball" (a king is assassinated onstage).

In our time, there's John Adams' "Death of Klinghoffer" about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and Steve Reich's "Daniel Variations" dedicated to Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, beheaded in Pakistan in 2002. Just last month, Estonian composer Arvo Part announced that he would dedicate all of his premieres this season to Russian journalist Anna Politkovska, outspoken critic of Russia's ongoing war in Chechnya. She was murdered Oct. 7 in Moscow.

The "Leningrad" Symphony has become even more political over the years as comments by the composer and those who knew him have surfaced.

Shostakovich had enemies other than Hitler in mind when composing the work, Järvi said. "The piece is supposed to be the heroic struggle of the people of Leningrad against the German blockade, but it's just as much, or maybe even more about Stalin's terror."

Prime example is the "invasion" theme of the first movement, which builds, "Bolero"-like, to an earsplitting conclusion.

Shostakovich witnessed Stalin's purges firsthand during the 1930s. He was put in mortal fear himself after the Soviet dictator walked out of a performance of his "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" in 1936, prompting a scorching condemnation in Pravda.

"Shostakovich thought he was not going to be living much longer and had to write conciliatory pieces in order to survive," said Järvi. "He wrote one upbeat, Sovietic piece for every difficult one to make sure he was not going to be sent away."

Since the composer's death in 1974, much attention has been paid to uncovering hidden meanings in his works. What appears is that he was a closet dissident who couched his opposition to the Soviet government in musical terms, where it was unlikely to be noticed and lead to exile or execution.

Prokofiev, who was 15 years older than Shostakovich, experienced things somewhat differently, having spent many years in the West until he finally settled in Moscow.

"Whenever he came back, they gave him a fantastic welcome. He was never really a dissident," said Sitkovetsky. Even in 1948, when he was denounced along with Shostakovich and other composers for writing "formalist" (i.e. difficult) music, "he was not so scared. He wrote a rather mocking letter agreeing with them."

Järvi, whose father recorded "Peter and the Wolf" with Prokofiev's widow, Lina, in 1987, says Prokofiev "came back with a certain idealistic feeling of being a Russian and needing to live in Russia to be able to write real Russian music. But once he became old news - somebody who filled the propaganda purpose of coming home - he was treated quite badly."

Like Shostakovich, Prokofiev was "forced to survive in the environment," said Järvi, "so he had to write pieces that were much less experimental. I think he realized that he made the wrong decision, but he could never leave again. He died, I think, quite a disillusioned man."

Both Sitkovetsky and Järvi were members of famous musical families in the Soviet Union. Sitkovetsky's father, Julian, who died in 1956, was a legendary violinist, his mother, Bella Davidovich, a celebrated pianist. Järvi's father and uncle were both conductors. Neeme Järvi, built the Estonian State Orchestra into one of the Soviet Union's finest.

"It was not so easy to leave Russia in those days," said Sitkovetsky.

Sitkovetsky's strategy was to simulate illness. "I was chosen to go to another competition, and, three months before it happened, I withdrew and went into a hospital because I said I had tendinitis. I stopped all playing. At the end of three months, I obtained a medical leave of absence from the conservatory. Soon after that, I received an invitation from Israel and applied to leave. They couldn't throw me out of the conservatory, so I was protected from the army. Because I didn't go to the competition and they didn't hear me play for nearly a year, they thought it was for real."

Sitkovetsky went to New York and was accepted at the Juilliard School. He won the Kreisler Competition in Vienna in 1979 and went on to an international career. In 1990 he added conducting and is currently music director of North Carolina's Greensboro Symphony.

Järvi was genuinely ill and faced inadequate medical care when his father applied for permission to leave. He recalls the manipulative way artists were treated in the Soviet Union.

"You were given a nice big apartment in the center of Moscow rather than somewhere far away living with four other families, or a stipend that would allow you to work and not worry about money. Obvious, basic things. Even though everybody had access to health care, there were government hospitals where you could have the best doctors, best medicine.

"The actual reality of Soviet life was so incredibly bleak. Things like having a car - which otherwise you could get in line and maybe get in 15 or 20 years, if you were lucky - or a phone could be taken away immediately if there was even a suspicion of any kind of disloyalty."

Järvi's family received VIP amenities, he said. However, Neeme Järvi clashed with the authorities over programming (including Part's "Credo," a religious work) and was threatened with restrictions on travel and guest conducting. He left to gain artistic freedom.

"The goal of art is to be provocative," said Järvi, who cited Cincinnati Opera's 2005 "Margaret Garner" (about slavery) as an example.

Challenging art may not land you in the gulag in this country, but "we have our own issues," he said. "A lot of decisions that are being made have more and more to do with sponsorship, not culture. Art and sponsorship need to work together, but not in direct correlation. It's like church and state.

"We have very generous people who give us money, and we need that money, but one thing we should never give in return is the artistic decision making process. Artistic decisions need to be in the hands of artists. Otherwise, people end up paying for something they didn't bargain for. They won't get the quality.

"I read about fighting for the entertainment dollar. It's all so misunderstood. If we really wanted to have entertainment for entertainment's sake, you could shut down all the orchestras right now. We don't need a playhouse in this town. We could have Broadway shows about cats and dogs. The whole point of having art is exactly the controversial, provoking attitude that we are trying to do.

"It's also a question of proven quality. With all due respect to pop culture, very little of it will survive. This is not a criticism. We're in a different business. We are not in business to fight for entertainment dollars. This is a very profound misunderstanding that can only happen in places that don't think about the meaning of art."

Tickets are $18.50-$77, $10 for students, half-price for seniors Saturday night only.

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