Like Hymns To Ukraine: Music’s New Meaning In Time Of A Personal War

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Oleksiy Palchykov sang a Donizetti aria during the March 12 “Stand with Ukraine” concert in Hamburg.

“The role of the artist is to not look away.”
― Akira Kurosawa, Japanese film maker

PERSPECTIVE — Every concert I’ve heard since the fateful Ukraine invasion date of Feb. 24 has been — explicitly or not — about the war, no matter what was being played. Or how long ago the concert was planned.

Case history: The New York Philharmonic’s every-week subscription concerts for March 31-April 2 promised to have the right kind of electricity when conductor Tugan Sokhiev was to conduct the Philharmonic in Prokofiev’s great Symphony No. 5. Then, suddenly…uh-oh. Though Sokhiev proclaimed his neutrality by resigning from his positions at Bolshoi Opera and Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, the idea of a Russia-based musician leading Prokofiev’s 1944 pro-Soviet symphony was asking for trouble — comparable to, say, Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting Wagner in the U.S. after the Holocaust (an engagement that also never happened).

Rarely has a war been so personal. We all know Ukrainians and will come to know many more as refugees arrive. Then there’s the possibility of nuclear war. Every concert I go to has the possibility — still distant at this point — of being my last.

Works by Valentin Silvestrov, Ukraine’s greatest living composer, are performed often these days.

The very abstraction that makes classical music, well, classical offers endless shifting meanings. At the March 26 Metropolitan Opera HD simulcast of Verdi’s Don Carlos, the cast freely acknowledged, during intermission interviews, the opera’s stark modern parallels with King Philip II of Spain annihilating Flanders in the name of peace. In performance, scenes with fiery humanitarian debates — once just another reason to sing and posture — became the opera’s central dramatic purpose.

Elsewhere, among concerts I’ve caught on U.S. and European radio, one could almost do a blindfold test on which ones were recorded before or after the invasion. Musicians emerging from lockdown already exude pent-up energy. But unlike so many recent crises, these musicians have a platform, a voice, and an audience listening harder than ever.

Many programs have added works by Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937), Ukraine’s greatest living composer, an authentic voice rooted in the besieged area, whose short works, such as Hymne, strike just the right elegiac tone. The Philadelphia Orchestra enlisted Myroslav Skoryk’s also-hypnotic “Melody” from the movie The High Pass in its March 24-27 concerts.

More curious, works we know as well as our own living rooms are emerging dramatically changed in manner and meaning. The percussion thundered in Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli played by WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne under Manfred Honeck on March 11. The usually fastidious, meticulously controlled Osmo Vänskä emerged from the curtain-raising Silvestrov Hymne to conduct a Mahler Symphony No. 9 with unguarded boldness with his Minnesota Orchestra on March 18. We’ve all been to funerals where music is employed for the occasion, the grieving element laid on thicker than cake frosting. But that is not what I hear in this and other performances. It’s all coming from within. Conductors often seek profundity in slow tempos. Vanska expressed outrage with accelerandos.

Alan Gilbert isn’t usually an interventionist conductor, but there’s no mistaking how the final minutes of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand collided with itself and exploded with horrific intensity in a performance by Kirill Gerstein (an American citizen) and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin on March 15. Gilbert went on to shape Dvořák’s New World Symphony slow movement with highly personal details: Pizzicato gestures searched for something not found, the famous English horn solo had particularly quiet, hopeful reverence, and the final ascending string gesture conveyed deep spiritual longing. Similarly, the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra under Petr Popelka played a March 14 Dvořák New World at a level beyond its usual standard and with a fierceness that screamed, “We’re still free!”

John Relyea as the Grand Inquisitor and Eric Owens as King Philippe II in the Metropolitan Opera production of ‘Don Carlos,’ in which Philippe’s annihilating Flanders in the name of peace has modern parallels. (Photo by Ken Howard / Met Opera)

The word that comes to mind in these performances is one with an all-too-denominational connotation: prayer. This quality is most often sensed in the intensity of the pianissimos, whether in the “Hostias” of the Verdi Requiem sung by Michael Spyres in a March 11 performance by the Berlin Philharmonic under Daniel Barenboim or in the first-movement development section of the Beethoven Violin Concerto as played by Anne-Sophie Mutter with the combined forces of Munich’s three major orchestras on March 8.

Other prayerful moments have been heard in Barber’s Adagio for Strings (Metropolitan Opera, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, March 14), Strauss’ celestial song “Morgen!” with a mixture of hope and hopelessness (Klaus Florian Vogt, March 12 in Hamburg), and especially Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, which became spine tingling as never before (soprano Ann-Helen Moen and the MDR-Sinfonieorchester under Karsten Januschke, March 6).

Less likely choices include, on that same program, Schoenberg’s choral piece “Friede auf Erden” (Peace on Earth), which tries to be a traditional hymn but keeps unraveling, and Debussy’s short, little-known World War I-era Berceuse héroique (played by Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under Pablo Heras-Casado, March 10) with Edgar Allen Poe-influenced darkness around the edges, a climactic explosion, some hopeful bells on the horizon, and a march-like trudge towards…what?

I was sure that the Grammy-winning choir The Crossing was, on its March 27 Philadelphia concert, employing Arvo Pärt‘s Salve Regina, which asks for protection under the Blessed Virgin Mary, with a Ukraine subtext in mind. The piece was actually programmed a year ago — in a phenomenon that Crossing director Donald Nally describes as “our lives in real time, told through music.”

The Crossing director Donald Nally programmed Arvo Pärt‘s ‘Salve Regina‘ long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but, as he said of the work, it reflects “our lives in real time, told through music.”

“The unexpected connection is that these sacred works coming from previously Soviet-occupied regions are not just church pieces,” said Nally in an e-mail. “They grew out of the oppression that stifled — even ridiculed — religious works. These pieces are a gesture embracing the freedoms that we Americans take for granted, such as the right to worship….

“For me, these are the amazing and often sad coincidences that happen through live performance…sad, because, wouldn’t it be great if, just once, a mournful piece of music only touched our memories, and didn’t describe our lives?”

U.S. concerts have kept the talk at a minimum. Not so in Europe, where the war is closer to their doorsteps — and threatens to touch them physically.

The March 12 “Stand with Ukraine” concert in Hamburg had one of the opera company’s resident tenors, Oleksiy Palchykov, singing the soulful Donizetti aria “Una furtiva lagrima,” having arrived back from meeting his refugee parents just across the Ukraine border in Rumania. “They were waiting for me in a small hotel…and when I opened the door and saw the face of my mother…it was incredible,” he told the audience. “My family is safe now, They can live with me. But I have another family. It’s Ukraine….”

Conductor Vladimir Jurowski, who, like many Russian-Jewish musicians, has largely made his career in the West, was in Moscow with Gil Shaham performing Beethoven and Shostakovich as recently as January but returned to Berlin and gave a concert with his Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin only two days after the invasion, making an important distinction that needs to be heard in communities that are cancelling concerts of Russian music: This is Putin’s war, he said, not Russia’s war. Then he conducted a blistering performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.

Russian conductor Tugan Sokhiev’s engagement with the New York Philharmonic this week was canceled after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Another surprise during these tumultuous weeks is how current events can trivialize music as often as they ennoble it.

After 9/11, I couldn’t listen to any chipper Rodgers and Hammerstein songs. Amid lockdown in 2020, my brain rebelled against the multi-level satire of Offenbach. Now, quite unexpectedly, I arrived at New York’s Park Avenue Armory on March 22 for the latest multi-media opera by Dutch composer Michel van der Aa, whose works I’ve admired in the past. The state of-of-the-art video production felt epic. But the piece itself? I turned against it inside of 15 minutes.

Titled Upload (and running through March 30), it’s about a clinic where people are digitized in order to live forever. This central idea of achieving immortality that has been so prevalent in our culture suddenly seemed egotistical and completely undesirable. Why would I want to extend my life so as to witness our dying planet being finished off by the likes of Vladimir Putin? I wanted to yell at the characters, “Haven’t you thought this through?”

This is a fundamental shift in our place in the cosmos — the idea that our natural human lifespan is quite enough as it is. I’m not faulting the composer. Sometimes history pulls the rug out from under the most worthy endeavors. Tragedies displace our previous sense of who we are. But one thing that is heard over and over in these Ukraine-solidarity concerts is that, whatever the time, place, or circumstances, art brings people together. It’s hugely valuable. From one era to the next, that does not change.