Chicago SO Fetes Three Composers In ‘Truth to Power’

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra's 'Truth to Power' festival features music by Britten, Prokofiev and Shostakovich (Courtesy CSO)
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s “Truth to Power” festival offers major compositions by Britten, Prokofiev and Shostakovich.
(Festival artwork courtesy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra)
By Nancy Malitz

CHICAGO – “Truth to Power,” the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s multifaceted three-week festival commencing May 22, aims like its annual thematic predecessors to awake community-wide interest with high-concept programming that appeals to those with a taste for something a little different.

The idea for the 2014 festival came from a free-wheeling discussion among Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden, British composer and music scholar Gerard McBurney, and Martha Gilmer, the CSO’s executive in charge of artistic planning. (Van Zweden, who is music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, will conduct all concerts.) Gilmer’s history with the CSO extends back to the early Solti era, and she described to McBurney and van Zweden the excitement surrounding a 1989 Shostakovich festival she had helped to develop for Rostropovich:

Shostakovich's own sketches shaped the CSO's 1989 festival in his honor. (CSO)
Shostakovich’s own sketches shaped a 1989 CSO festival in his honor.

“It was one of my greatest memories, to be summoned to (then-CEO) Henry Fogel’s office, where Slava gave me this little piece of paper, which was a sketch by Shostakovich about how to combine several of his works into a series of concerts that Slava wanted to conduct. And the festival was just sensational in Chicago. People were talking about it everywhere. It really put Shostakovich on the map with this orchestra, and he has continued to be a hallmark of its musicality and facility over the years.”

Gilmer also wondered aloud to McBurney and van Zweden about the feasibility of somehow marking the CSO’s long relationship with Rostropovich, who was a good friend of Solti and a regular CSO guest artist, often playing and conducting the works of his favorite composers. The idea took hold. “One of us said that what Slava really liked to do,” McBurney recalled, “was to celebrate these three chaps he had been friends with – Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Britten.”

Britten's Violin Concerto and Sinfonia da Requiem are planned.
Britten’s Violin Concerto and Sinfonia da Requiem are planned.

And van Zweden felt that those three composers were related by their extraordinary responses to the perils they faced. “Although their suffering had different reasons and causes,” he said, “what connected them, besides the friendship between Shostakovich and Britten, was that they stuck to their talents, to what they really needed to do in life. They were able, despite extreme difficulty and depression, to create beautiful flowers in the darkest of times.”

The festival’s title, “Truth to Power,” is a reference to the 1955 Quaker manifesto “Speak Truth to Power,” which urges a non-violent response to oppression and incorporates van Zweden’s view of the composers’ transcendent achievements. Major works of all three are programmed alongside each other, including Shostakovich’s Fifth, Seventh, and Ninth Symphonies, Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, Violin Concerto (with Simone Lamsma) and Peter Grimes music, and Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto (with cellist Alisa Weilerstein) and Fifth Symphony.

Van Zweden: "They created beautiful flowers in the darkest of times."
Van Zweden: “They created beautiful flowers in the darkest of times.”

Relative rarities include Britten’s Suite on English Folk Tunes: “A time there was …”, among his last compositions, and Shostakovich’s Five Fragments, written at age 29. “They’re like the very little pieces of Webern,” van Zweden said. “Like a little prayer that comes and disappears and that’s it.”

But for van Zweden, it’s not only the rarities that are new. “Don’t forget I started conducting full time only about 13 years ago,” said the 54-year-old artist, who was concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra until 1995. (His first major post was as chief conductor of the Residentie Orchestra in The Hague with the 2000-01 season.) “I’ve done the majority of Shostakovich now, but the Seventh is quite new, and the Prokofiev Symphony-Concerto and the Passacaglia from Peter Grimes will be for the first time.”

Why the lighter and somewhat baffling Ninth instead of the tragic Eighth, which would seem to speak more directly to the festival topic? McBurney, who is a Russian and Soviet music scholar, says the practical answer is that the Eighth was already scheduled, under Semyon Bychkov, for April 2015. But he welcomes the chance for the Ninth to be heard, because he thinks it is misunderstood, perhaps in the way that some Mahler was at first:

McBurney: Shostakovich's 9th is double-faced.
McBurney: “Shostakovich’s 9th plays between laughter and tears.”

“What is it that Amanda says in Noël Coward’s Private Lives, as a tune with powerful memories keeps being played?” McBurney asked. “‘Strange how potent cheap music is.’ The Ninth was written by and for people for whom that kind of music was very familiar, and the problem with plunking it down in front of a bunch of modern Americans or Brits is that they don’t automatically have the same associations.

“Cheap music is more culturally specific than any other kind of music. When I hear Elgar, who loved to play with cheap music, I hear absolutely the music my granny loved, but you may not. And it’s always a problem for Europeans to understand the freedom with which American music crosses the line between high and low, because the low seems so obviously associated with the commercial element, but that’s just because they haven’t lived in America.

“Shostakovich also grew up with cheap Soviet music all around him. I know I fell in love with it when I was living there, and now I have the greatest pleasure in listening to this work. The Ninth is tragic as well, but it is double-faced, playing between laughter and tears in the most astonishing way.”

In McBurney’s view, the paradoxes that seem difficult to understand in Shostakovich and Prokofiev are actually quite characteristic of the greater Russian and Soviet culture, which had long required artists to live under one kind of autocracy or another. “You can go back through Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky all the way to Pushkin, who is the seed from which all later intelligentsia come, and Pushkin was also extremely paradoxical in his relationship with authority. He covers the waterfront from rebellion, irony, and caricature right through to social climbing and being entranced by figures of authority. To me, Shostakovich and Prokofiev make much more sense when you view them against that history.

One performance of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony will be supplemented by rare war footage.
One concert of Prokofiev’s 5th will be supplemented by a rare war film.

“The period of the 1920s and very early ’30s, the post-revolutionary avant-garde, was fascinating, and Shostakovich was right in the thick of it. One of the things that was very common in that world was a passion for what Russians called the absurd, which produced an absolute whirlpool of invention in cinema, literature, poetry, all the arts. Shostakovich, along with 500 other artists of his generation, is a classic product of that whirlpool.”

Thus, to experience the festival for its orchestra concerts alone would be to miss its broad-base character. “Truth to Power” includes Poetry Foundation events that explore the impact of pressures of wartime patriotic duty on various poets, and there will be pre-concert overviews of the film music of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, a mass medium in which both composers were active.  An encore performance of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, with live narration and rarely-seen war footage, is also planned, in a program called “Beyond the Score,” curated and directed by McBurney, that is designed to help listeners understand the musical and historical context of path-breaking works.

 James Moran, right, collaborates with Theaster Gates on a new work.  (CSO)
James Moran, right, prepares a new collaboration with Theaster Gates.

Finally, the CSO has commissioned a work by jazz pianist and MacArthur Fellow Jason Moran, who is a musical adviser on jazz for the Kennedy Center, to premiere May 30. Although the project is still  largely under wraps, James M. Fahey, who oversees the non-orchestral concerts at Symphony Center, says Moran is collaborating with the internationally known Chicago installation artist Theaster Gates. His salvage-based creations have been documented in national publications and heralded at international art shows such as dOCUMENTA in Kassel, Germany, and the Whitney Biennial in New York.

“I asked (Moran and Gates) to think about the phrase ‘Truth to Power,’” Fahey said, “and what musicians in the past were struggling with, to create something for Chicago today.”

For a detailed list of “Truth to Power” events, visit

Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for a variety of national publications.