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‘Truth’ proves a powerful force in CSO program

Japp van Zweden | PHOTO COPYRIGHT HANS VANDERWOERD

Japp van Zweden | PHOTO COPYRIGHT HANS VANDERWOERD

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Updated: May 30, 2014 4:22PM



The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is in the midst of a three-week, four-program concert series of works by popular 20th century composers Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten, which programmers are calling “Truth to Power.”

A survey of the three names alone shows the title to be a misnomer. Prokofiev was both apolitical and a naif who returned to live permanently in the Soviet Union in 1936. (He famously died in Moscow in 1953 on the same day as Stalin.) Shostakovich was a much more complex figure who battled for much of his life with the very ideas of truth and power, sometimes holding them in opposition and sometimes not. Britten, who had ties to Shostakovich, chiefly through the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, indeed wrote major works of pacifism (he even opposed the fight against Hitler in World War II) and public examination of being a gay man in an oppressive, straight society. But only one of the CSO programs holds an anti-war or “political” piece by the British artist.

As with the Britten selections, Thursday night’s program especially stands outside of any categorization or marketing. Neither Prokofiev’s original Cello Concerto of the 1930s nor its laborious reworking into the lengthy (37 minutes) “Symphony-Concerto” for cello and orchestra in 1950, heard here, have anything to do with politics, society or contemporary life. Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony — originally conceived as a celebration, or at least a work of gratitude, for the defeat of the Nazis in 1945 — can perhaps be seen as a political statement only because in the end the composer chose NOT to write a triumphant or “patriotic” piece, but a light-hearted, even comically theatrical piece. (The lengths to which annotators can go to prove the presence of something by its absence are shown in Daniel Jaffe’s “explanation” in the CSO program that the work, complete with Mozartean opening and circus music finale is actually about . . . Hiroshima!). And the Britten, a lovely true performance rarity, his last orchestral work written in 1974 just two years before his death, “Suite on English Folk Tunes,” is just that: a reworking and reweaving of English folk tunes often casting an eye back towards the line of Thomas Hardy’s that is its subtitle, “A time there was ... .”

The Soviets had strong allies in guest conductor Jaap van Zweden, who leads the whole series, through June 8, and, in the Prokofiev, the intense American cellist Alisa Weilerstein. Both works received strong performances with crisp definition, well-structured articulation from each section and, in the Shostakovich, astonishing solos from many principal players, particularly early-retiring bassoonist David McGill. These were championing performances, with Weilerstein sometimes digging for more than her part might actually contain artistically, but tearing through the many virtuosic passages and several cadenzas with fire and technique to spare. The audience went wild for her, their four curtain calls being rewarded with a rather “correct” offering of the two bourees from Bach’s Third Cello Suite as an encore.

Van Zweden, music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, brought a bit much of his rip-roaring, precise tendencies to the Britten, a piece that benefits from a bit more love. But just to hear a live performance of the 18-minute work and to “watch” Britten revisiting many of the inspirations of his musical and personal life was a gift. And Scott Hostetler’s glorious extended english horn solo in the last song setting surely would have sounded like the truth to its composer.



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