Botstein, ASO find hidden treasure in neglected Jewish composers of the Soviet Union

Mon Jan 29, 2018 at 1:38 pm
Leon Botsein conducted the American Symphony Orchestra Sunday at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Steve Pyke

Leon Botstein conducted the American Symphony Orchestra Sunday at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Steve Pyke

It’s not unusual these days to hear music by Jewish composers whose careers-and often, their lives–were cut short by the Holocaust. But what about those in the Soviet Union who survived the war, only to find their works suppressed by the anti-Semitic dictator Stalin? 

With a program titled “Hollow Victory” Sunday afternoon in Carnegie Hall, the American Symphony Orchestra and its music director Leon Botstein turned their historical telescope toward the postwar years in the U.S.S.R., when composers like Shostakovich and Khachaturian were garnering accolades both at home and abroad, while prejudice against Jews caused high-quality music by Mieczysław Weinberg and Veniamin Fleishman to gather dust on the shelf.

The sole survivor of a Polish family lost in the Nazi camps, Weinberg (1919-1996) went on to become a noted musical figure in Khrushchev’s U.S.S.R. and after, even in post-Soviet Russia. Fleishman (1913-1941), alas, did die during the war, not in a concentration camp but defending his home city Leningrad against the Nazi siege so famously memorialized in his teacher Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony.

Sunday’s performance made a persuasive case that the music of these two would be better known outside Russia had it not been suppressed at home for a decade or more.

Weinberg’s exquisite ear for orchestral scoring was evident throughout the concert’s first half, which consisted of his local-color piece Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes and a more ambitious work, his Symphony No. 5 in F minor.

As recounted in Peter Laki’s program notes, Weinberg was born in Warsaw, but his family roots were in Bessarabia (now the Republic of Moldova), a region linked culturally and linguistically to Romania. So it’s not surprising that, in its colorful scoring, Arabic-sounding melodies with their flattened seconds and mood swings from nostalgic to ebullient, Weinberg’s Rhapsody of 1949 sounded like a first cousin of Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsodies, composed half a century earlier.

Unlike his tuneful Romanian predecessor, however, Weinberg worked by suggestion, letting snatches of melody drift in and out in an ever-changing sonic environment. From the opening bars, where a plangent oboe solo emerged from a thick mist of double bass and cello sound, one felt the presence of an exceptional orchestrator.

The ASO players vividly rendered all the delicious orchestral effects, and conductor Botstein unerringly sensed when to take his time and when to bound ahead. The result was a lively and engaging performance of a piece that deserves many more airings.

The three-quarter-hour of Weinberg’s Fifth Symphony, on the other hand, was a tougher sell. With the same serious stance as his close friend Shostakovich but less taste for spectacle, Weinberg composed introspective music that was beautifully made but taxing to the attention span, especially in the interminable Adagio sostenuto second movement.

Because of the reams of commentary that have been heaped on Shostakovich’s symphonies, perhaps Weinberg’s message seems less political than that of his friend. This symphony’s eventful first movement and lightly dancing scherzo showed a Haydn-like flair for creating sophisticated music with folk-like themes, in this case with a Moldavian flavor.

The last movement, stepping softly along in a moderate Andantino tempo and ending in a pianissimo puff of celesta and cymbals, must be the most furtive symphonic finale in the repertoire. It might have been meant as a sly riposte to Shostakovich’s famously noisy Fifth Symphony finale, or maybe a portrait of the artist as a wary composer under Stalin’s culture commissars.

Botstein and the orchestra proved expert in rendering the score’s details but less able to find the thread that tied it all together. A bit more forward momentum, for example, would have helped put the sostenuto in the Adagio.

But time after time, just as tedium was about to set in, Weinberg the master chef was there with a new combination of orchestral flavors to refresh the ear. He seemed, in fact, to prefer this elegant sound chemistry to the kind of wall-to-wall tutti favored by other composers.

And in fact, Fleishman’s one-act opera Rothschild’s Violin, completed by Shostakovich after the composer’s untimely death, sounded conventional in its scoring compared to Weinberg’s symphony. But that fact detracted not at all from its effectiveness as a telling vignette of village life.

The story, originally by Chekhov and adapted by Fleishman, depicts a turning point in the life of the miserable and parsimonious coffin-maker Yakov, sung on Sunday with rustic roughness but room-filling authority by bass Mikhail Svetlov. Yakov, a Christian who makes extra money playing violin in a Jewish dance band, sees the dark side of everything, picking fights with fellow band members—particularly the young flutist Rothschild, sung by Aaron Blake in a piercing but appealing tenor—and even resenting the expense of making a coffin for his dying wife Marfa (mezzo-soprano Jennifer Roderer, sounding appropriately foggy in her lower register but with considerable power on top).

That, plus a bit of comic business with the exasperated bandleader Shahkes (stoutly sung by tenor Marc Heller) is all the setup needed for Yakov’s long closing monologue–not quite on the Boris Godunov level, but nonetheless a touching lament for a life spent in meanness and self-pity, at the end of which Yakov decides to leave some good behind by giving his prized violin to Rothschild.

On Sunday it was easy to see why Shostakovich took on this score, not just out of loyalty to a favorite student but to preserve its admirable music, especially extensive orchestral passages depicting a street scene, the band rehearsing, Rothschild chased through the streets by anti-Semitic children, and the closing apotheosis of Rothschild and his violin.

The singers entered, exited, and sang with panache, Svetlov gave a fervent account of Yakov’s monologue, and Botstein and his musicians played their foreground and background roles effectively. (A few lines for chorus were contributed by singers from the Bard Festival Chorus, directed by James Bagwell.)

At 40 minutes and with a cast of four singers, Rothschild’s Violin feels like less than an opera but more than a scena, and its prospects for future concert or stage programming remain unclear. So thanks are due to Botstein and company for bringing this appealing piece to life on a Sunday afternoon in Carnegie Hall.

The next concert in the American Symphony Orchestra’s “Music and Politics” series at Carnegie Hall will be Luigi Nono’s opera Intolleranza, 8 p.m. March 1.; 212-868-9276.

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