The “Truth to Power” title of the current Chicago Symphony Orchestra series showcasing Britten, Shostakovich and Prokofiev music is a bit puzzling. “Truth to Power” might conjure a tea party convention to some or Eric Snowden to others, or perhaps that memorable time when Stephen Colbert held court at a National Press dinner expressing his views of the war in Iraq in no uncertain terms. The three pieces played in this concert, like other nights in this series, were not direct protest songs or symphonies. That said, the three pieces we heard the Chicago Symphony Orchestra play under the baton of Jaap van Zweden the other night were all created or significantly shaped by the political surrounds they were born in. That music thrived in such harsh political contexts is where the truth lies, perhaps.
If it were not for excesses of Stalin’s censorship of the arts Shostakovich’s “Five Fragments, Op. 42” might not have come into existence. The pre-history of this piece was an editorial in Pravda (translation: Truth) condemning Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth opera, forcing the composer to switch gears to symphonic compositions instead. Much of the “Five Fragments” is reported to have been slated for other operas, or perhaps symphonies.
At times just a soft and slow singing of strings, others a duet between bassoon and clarinet, and with an opening rich with oboe and flutes, and also a brass-drive march like interlude-- it was overall a piece that seemed soft and gentle, especially compared to the repertoire that followed. We were acutely aware with this piece, as with those that followed, that van Zweden was conducting the important silences as much as the full notes.
Britten, a pacifist, responded to a commission to honor the 2600 anniversary of the Japanese Imperial dynasty in 1940, a year of tension in the buildup to World War II with his “Sinfonia da requiem, Op. 20”. The program notes say that Britten took on the commission with the proviso that “no form of musical jingoism” was required. Actually, it’s easy to imagine that Britten went out of his way to ensure that his work would not please the political powers of Japan, who did in fact reject it. This is a work steeped in Christian liturgy, written for a country without that religious tradition. It is about war, not celebration of an Imperial dynasty.
Several other musicians’ works were accepted by the Japanese government with only Britten’s work being rejected. If you are curious, here is what Richard Strauss produced, “Japanese Festival Music”, for his commission--- a far more triumphal work that seems to be saluting a dynasty--
This history of Britten’s piece makes it all the more intriguing. It opens with timpani and closed with van Zweden seeming to hold our attention to the last harp chord fading into silence.
Prokofiev’s “Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100”, with its memorable melodic line in the second and fourth movement, certainly deserves the fame and plaudits it received at its premiere. Ironically, it was the coincidence with a Soviet army victory that allowed this work to be perceived by the powers that be as a triumphant military victory salute. That wasn’t Prokofiev’s aim. Rather, Prokofiev wanted to salute the human spirit, but here too the political power structure determined the music’s fate above and beyond its own musical merits.
Whether it was the oboe and flute in a duet rendering this theme, or the clarinet giving us a rendition full of whimsy, or the larger orchestra playing its chords, it is certainly a theme that lingers in your head for days.
At the conclusion of this piece during three rounds of a standing ovation, a happy van Zweden asked the various soloists from the orchestra to take their bows followed by the entire orchestra. It seemed as if the orchestra members themselves were also clapping too with more than usual enthusiasm. We weren’t celebrating van Zweden’s conducting or Prokofiev’s score, but both.
A note to all CSO concert-goers--- do check out the pre-concert lectures. Before this performance there was a presentation by Dr. Laura Pritchard on Prokofiev’s film scores with video examples from Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky” and “Ivan the Terrible” and another film called “Tanya”. Pondering how Prokofiev mastered such assignments where he was in a relative girdle created by the film maker to how he unleashed in his symphonic works made it all the richer an experience.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will soon start its summer season at Ravinia. For information on the CSO lineup at Ravinia and the entire summer season visit the Ravinia website.
For information and tickets to next year’s concerts at Symphony Center in the Loop call the CSO box office at 312 294 3000 or visit the CSO website.