Music And Drama Meld In Emerson’s ‘Russian Fantasy’

At Ravinia, actors join the Emerson String Quartet in an exploration of parallels between the fictional world of Andrey Kovrin, a character in a Chekhov story, and the real life of Dmitri Shostakovich. (Photos: Russell Jenkins / Ravinia)
By Kyle MacMillan

HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — If the Emerson String Quartet wanted to just rest on its laurels and present familiar, audience-friendly concerts, it would be completely understandable. After all, the ensemble has been in existence for more than 40 years and has won virtually every honor imaginable, including nine Grammy and three Gramophone awards. If the group is not the finest quartet in the world, it is easily in the top five. Put simply, it has nothing left to prove.

But taking the easy road was never how the Emerson achieved its success, and it is clearly not about to start now. In June 2017, under the auspices of the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, it shrugged off the conventional, as it has many times before, and joined seven collaborators in presenting the world premiere of Shostakovich and the Black Monk: A Russian Fantasy. Chicago audiences got their first look at the 90-minute multidisciplinary work July 17 in the Martin Theatre at the Ravinia Festival.

Actor David Strathairn took the lead role as Shostakovich and served as a narrator.

This hybrid creation, which combines music, reader’s theater, and video projections, explores the fascinating parallels between the world of Andrey Kovrin — a promising young academic in Anton Chekhov’s short story, “The Black Monk,” whose ideals (or are they crazy hallucinations?) are ultimately squelched — and the tumultuous life of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

All but one of the seven actors take on multiple roles as they switch back and forth between the lives of the famous composer and Chevkov’s fictional hero and deliver first-rate performances along the way. David Strathairn, a well-known actor from stage and screen, took the lead role of the older Shostakovich, adroitly conveying the pain and wearying anxiety that was so much a part of the composer’s life, and served as a kind of narrator for the story. Also appearing throughout is Joseph Stalin (ably portrayed by Sean Astin) whose presence echoes the Black Monk in this take on Shostakovich’s life. He serves a kind of smart-mouthed agitator, invading both of the stories, and also injects some much-needed humor. Stalin tells the quartet (which has a tradition of performing on their feet) at one point to sit down: “Yes, we all know that standing is your thing.”

The Emerson played only one complete work, Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 14.

The actors also at times function as kind of a Greek chorus. Indeed, when they first make their entrance, they are an angry mob shouting, “Muddle not Music,” a translation of the headline on an infamous Pravda editorial in 1936 that nearly ended Shostakovich’s budding career and had the potential of costing him his life. It condemned the composer’s just-debuted opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, now considered a masterpiece, as “coarse, primitive, and vulgar.”

The project was conceived by Emerson violinist Philip Setzer. His friend Gerard McBurney, a multifaceted composer, arranger, and writer who has reconstructed lost and forgotten works by Shostakovich, suggested he read “The Black Monk,” noting that the composer was a fan of the story and had wanted to write an opera based on it. Setzer filed away this information, as he explains in his program note, and he later began to think of a dramatic work based around it.

Earlier, Setzer had another idea for what ultimately became The Noise of Time, which debuted at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2000. A similar kind of musical-theater hybrid, this much-lauded collaboration between the theater company Complicité and the Emerson explored the life of Shostakovich alongside a performance of his Quartet no. 15 in E flat minor. McBurney’s brother, Simon, conceived and directed that project.

Sean Astin played Stalin, seen with David Strathairn’s Shostakovich.

For Shostakovich and the Black Monk, Setzer turned to James Glossman, who served as the writer and director. Glossman has created a highly inventive and intelligent work that successfully fuses the stories of Kovrin and Shostakovich. And within the limited confines of this format, he did a good job of sculpting surprisingly substantial outlines of the characters. But as much as I found this work intellectually stimulating, I had a hard time connecting with it because there was little in the way of an emotional core.

To be clear, this work is much more theatrical than musical in nature. Indeed, it is only well into Setzer’s program notes that the reader gets any notion of what music is actually performed in the work, and then only partial guidance. The only major piece that is played is in its entirety is Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 14 in F sharp, Op. 142, which he began on a trip to Ireland and England and finished in Moscow in 1973. The quartet’s three movements are spread across the theatrical work, with the first one serving as a kind of overture. The Emerson stood for each of these sections, which were performed with minimal or no interruption from the happenings around them. While these sections ably supported the theatrical thrust of the piece, some of the intrinsic power of the quartet was lost because these movements were isolated, the emotions not allowed, at least directly, to build on each other.

That said, the Emerson’s performance of this work was nothing short of superb. Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets are a key component of the composer’s musical output, as this drama makes clear, and one of the most important sets of such works in all classical music. The Emerson has recorded all of Shostakovich’s string quartets and performs them regularly, and its deep connection to this music was palpable here. It brought its trademark muscularity and clarity to the restless first movement, offering a driving, sharp-edged, and biting take. Eugene Drucker, serving as first violinist for this performance, then opened the second movement with a slow, elegiac solo, performing with an opaque tone and emotional hollowness that seemed just right. He was joined by cellist Paul Watkins and finally the entire quartet, as the four players powerfully captured the haunting poignancy of this meditative section. The ensemble brought the quartet to a close with similar intensity and incisiveness.

The venue was Ravinia’s Martin Theatre, sole survivor from the original festival buildings.

Elsewhere during Shostakovich and the Black Monk, the foursome remained seated and played excerpts that often served as background or incidental music and were usually heard with overlapping dialogue. Although Setzer notes that these excerpts come from various other Shostakovich quartets, the program notes do not spell out what they are other than to state that three percussive chords from the String Quartet No. 8 recur often in the early part of the work.

The only other musical work that is specifically identified is an arrangement for soprano and quartet of the Angel’s Serenade by Italian composer Gaetano Braga, and it was eloquently performed here by Ali Breneman in the role of Nina Shostakovich, his first wife. The serenade is cited in Chekhov’s short story, and Shostakovich referred to the duet between the violin and cello in the second movement of the String Quartet No. 14 as his “Italian bit” because of its similarity to the Angel’s Serenade. Indeed, at the time he was composing the quartet, he was working on his adaptation of “The Black Monk” and planned to incorporate it into the opera.

‘Shostakovich and the Black Monk’ is more theatrical than musical in nature.

While this music fits well into the dramatic arc of the work, anyone who came to this production expressly to hear the Emerson play was probably disappointed. And, indeed, some attendees afterward could be heard complaining about how little the ensemble performed during this work, at least in a way where the music took center stage.

Whatever shortcomings Shostakovich and the Black Monk might have, the Emerson deserves enormous credit for taking on such ambitious, cross-genre projects. Classical musicians can’t continue to only perform concerts in conventional, two-hour formats as they have for decades. To attract new audiences and energize the ones it already has, this venerable art form urgently needs innovative, tech-friendly projects like this one – undertakings that educate, offer new perspectives, and provide new incentives to engage with it.

Kyle MacMillan served as the classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music, and Early Music America.