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Friday, November 16, 2018

Concert Review: A Totalitarian Eclipse of the Heart

Jakob Hrůša leads the Cleveland Orchestra behind the Iron Curtain.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Jakob Hrůša in action.Photo by Andreas Herszau from the artist's website © 2016 Andreas Herszau. 
The music of Eastern Europe in the mid-20th century was, for the most part written in an oppressive climate of fear and government control. On Thursday night at Severance Hall, conductor Jakob Hrůša and the Cleveland Orchestra took out their crowbars and lifted the Iron Curtain with a program that shed some light on what music-making was like in a totalitarian (and proletarian) regime.

The concert started with Mystery of Time by the composer Miloslav Kabeláč, a Czech composer who was active when that country was a Soviet satellite state. He is one of the great Czech symphonists in the tradition of Dvorak and Martinu. (His catalogue includes eight symphonies and a lot of chamber music.) This piece is a weighty passacaglia for large orchestra, building on a simple thematic idea that grows in power and volume to a height of thunderous majesty.

The performance had to start twice, after an audience member's iPhone decided that it was time for a "marimba" solo. Mr. Hrůša took a visible breath, composed himself and went on to cue a thrilling and engrossing performance of this work. The players responded, led first by the double basses and strings and then swelling in volume and sound as brass and percussion joined the steady, determined march. After a central climax, the work diminished gradually, until just the few instruments that started were left to finish the last notes.

Igor Stravinsky got out Russia before World War I and did not return until 1962. The Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra was written in Nice during the early years of his exile, as a purely commercial concert piece that he could make money with as a touring musician. For this concert, the Clevelanders were joined by pianist Emanuel Ax, the unassuming-looking but fleet-fingered musician who is a familiar face as a concerto soloist.

Mr. Hrůša led off, but it was with Mr. Ax's entry that the first movement really launched itself. This is demanding stuff that is firmly in the Stravinskian neo-classical style, with the pianist uttering a nonstop stream of musical thought against the orchestra's chirping, chattering commentary. Following the three movements, Mr. Ax played a short but luminous encore: the Schubert Impromptu in A Major.

Stravinsky got out of Russia. Shostakovich never did, spending his entire career laboring under the watchful eye of the Communist Party and occasionally drawing the wrath of censors, other composers and on at least one memorable occasion, Stalin himself. That latter incident was the spawning ground for the optimistic Symphony No. 5. Built from some of the same thematic ideas as the completed but then hidden Symphony No. 4 (it had its premiere in 1961, eight years after Stalin's death), the muscular and ever-popular piece may have literally saved Shostakovich from exile or death upon its premiere in 1937.

Mr. Hrůša led a bold and deliberate performance, highlighting the violent juxtapositions of melancholy and blaring, triumphant brass that keep this work at the forefront of Shostakovich's catalogue. The outer movements seemed to miss the ironic message buried in the pages of this work. However, the Scherzo, with its caustic circus ritornello and the slow movement, which takes a tragic and much needed perspective look at the price of an artistic life in a brutal, totalitarian state were played with power and deep feeling.

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