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Classical Fright Night at Cornell

Russian Fare: a One-Way Eastbound Ticket to Freedom

by DAVID YEARSLEY

During the Cold War the members of a Soviet orchestra touring in the United States would have been watched closely by their handlers and by spies from within their ranks.  Many are the tales of escape. Maxim Shostakovich was a rising star among Soviet conductors. As son of the great Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, a revered figure who had been plagued by Stalinist regime, Maxim was a valuable cultural asset. On tour with U.S.S.R. Radio and Television Orchestra in 1981, Maxim and his pianist son (named Dmitri after his grandfather) slipped past the Soviet guards at a post-concert party and into the West Germany night and asylum, eventually emigrating to New York City. The heir of the Shostakovich legacy and main musical exponent of his work was one of the biggest of many musical fishes to slip through the Soviet anti-defection net.

Centrally isolated in the middle of New York State, the university town of Ithaca might have once been a good place from which to jump the listing Soviet ship. In this place lived a cosmopolitan citizenry rich in political awareness and sympathy; lots of rural hideaways beckoned; and there was tradition going back to the Underground Railway of helping the oppressed towards freedom.

Now, in the age of Edward Snowdon, the route of escape more likely runs in the other direction.

This past Monday evening the famed Mariinsky Orchestra of St. Petersburg spread itself across the stage of Cornell University’s cavernous Bailey Hall, a building whose vast neo-classical interior and unforgiving lighting seemed ironically apt for a program that began with Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and concluded with the bitter pathos and bombast of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, held by many to be a covert but no less ardent critique of Stalinism, whose architecture shared much with that of the Cornell venue. Sandwiched in between these mightiest of Russian warhorses was Rachmaninoff’s tone poem dirge, Isle of the Dead.

Amidst the overwhelming Russianness of this music—the arctic winds; the medieval, military trumpets; the witches dancing around the nighttime fire; the endless loneliness and epic heroism—I imagined an American whistleblower in the audience plotting his own escape: stash the hard drive in the sound box of the Mariinky’s harp after having made contact with its player over coffee on campus; then stow away in an empty double-bass case and get trundled onto the orchestra bus and then into the hold of the plane home, to be released after seemingly endless hours onto the luggage carousel in the St. Petersburg airport and into Putin’s protection …

Doubtless there were many hidden cameras and N. S. A. bugs in the Cornell concert hall, placed there not to record the sometimes inscrutable conducting of the maestro nor to marvel at the metrical elasticity of the Mariinsky’s ensemble playing, but to try and prevent dissidents from fleeing the American security gulag for the welcoming arms of steppe-mother Russia.

The man at the helm of the Mariinsky wielded not only the baton—either all-powerful, or all-impotent, depending on your point of view—but also a famous Soviet-era name: Solzhenitsyn. The conductor for this tour of the Mariinsky is Ignat Solzhenitsyn, son of the critic and survivor of the Soviet gulag system, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970. When Aleksandr was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, Ignat was just two years old. He was raised in Vermont, where the family eventually settled before Aleksandr returned to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Ignat studied both piano and conducting at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he continues to teach as much as his packed touring schedule allows.

The physical difference between father and son also brings constantly to mind the Cold-War-then and the War-on-Terror-now. Where Aleksandr was bearded and bald, Ignat has slicked-back thick conductor’s hair that flaps dramatically from its perch atop his forehead when he’s in full combat lather. Instead of the stiff, poorly tailored suits or khaki, paramilitary shirts favored by his father, the son dons the required tails. Father was ascetic; son looks well fed and as if he’s spent a lot of time on airplanes.

No doubt Aleksandr was rightly proud of his son since he favored artistically rich cultural enterprises over what he decried as the “t.v. stupor” and “intolerable music” of Western pop culture. Ignat was already enjoying tremendous success, even making music with other prominent émigrés like Mstislav Rostropovich, long before his father’s death five years ago. The Solzhenitsyns’ adopted country was good to this dissident’s son, who now finds himself as the principal guest conductor of Russia’s most storied orchestra, one founded in the early eighteenth century during the reign of the westward looking tsar, Peter the Great.

The products that Mariinsky under Solzhenitsyn was flogging to the West on this tour were the greatest hits of the Russian symphonic tradition, starting with the Mussorgsky. It’s a piece that, ironically enough, pop culture had long ago appropriated in the 1940 Disney animated film, Fantasia. Disney set the work above a village with steep-roofed houses and graveyard with leaning crosses, filling the spooky blue air with bright-eyed bats and vultures, elongated skeletons, and hulking winged monsters. In the aftermath of that inspired Disneyfication of the work it is nearly impossible to remember that this intensely visual tone poem, stitched together from various sources after Mussorgsky’s death in 1881 by his friend Rimsky-Korsakov, stems from a time before the advent of the movie image.

This visual sense is enhanced by the fact that no orchestra has a greater dynamic range than the Mariinsky, from furtive pianissimo tremolos to the deafening full-orchestra charges, the lines of string infantry urged forward by the covering fire of brass cannonades.  Blasting ever nugget of glinting terror from Mussorgsky’s Mountain is child’s play for these forces. The meaty cellos stomping through the mud, the ghoulish shrieking winds, and the cavalry calls of the trumpets transport the listener immediately to an archetypal Russia of myth, superstition, and fear.

Director of this fright night, Solzhenitsyn more often seemed to be pulled along by his orchestra than to be whipping them to new terrors. Familiarity is the antithesis of fear, and the problem with purveying this overplayed stuff, is that it can easily sound reheated rather than freshly baked in the infernal oven.

The mournful 5/8 meter of Rachmanioff’s Isle of the Dead from 1909 was the energetic lowpoint but artistic highpoint of the evening: Solzhenitsyn’s flexible, undulating treatment of the piece’s inexorable 5/8 rhythm made this limping lament far more unsettling and memorable than the pro forma pyrotechnics up on Bald Mountain.

After Stalin stormed out during the third act of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District n 1936, the composer fell from favor. His apparent rehabilitation from the errors of “petty-bourgeois, formalism” came less than two yeas later with what has since became his most famous symphony, the fifth. A vast and varied work, it seems to turn away from the composer’s predilection for parody in favor of unalloyed triumphalism in the finale.  Yet many have heard even there a thinly veiled critique of the Stalinist regime. At the premiere in 1937 the audience began standing one by one in the last movement, roused by its famous military theme and the expansive affirmation of its concluding D major sonority. At that first performance the composer was given a thirty-minute standing ovation, an act that many have interpreted as a repudiation of Stalinism at the height of the terror in 1937.

The disjointed rising figure and falling sighs of the opening movement came across as far more foreboding than the more fanciful terrors of Mussorgsky.  The Shostakovich seems to matter far more, and the depth and texture of the Mariinsky’s sound adds to this sense of nerve-wracked profundity. Whether Solzhenitsyn was in control of these emotional and musical complexities was unclear: at times he seemed to be cueing the orchestra about what his beat pattern would be, for example, holding up four fingers close to his lapel, to tell them he was conducting in four beats, rather than two. These actions might indicate lack of rehearsal time for the jet-setting conductor. The chortling among the brass could also have been interpreted as reflecting a certain mocking attitude towards their chief, or perhaps just a jovial bit of guffawing as they worked their way through the swing shift that was their national Fifth.

More of those old Russian witches took flight in the crazy second movement Scherzo, before they too sank into the dark mire of the Largo. In the resolute, redemptive finale the trumpet and trombones chuckled and smiled and again: the personal and political struggle of the Promethean composer reduced to just another night on the road under an émigré celebrity baton, charged with giving the West the Russian fare they’d come to consume and maybe after the show was over a one-way eastbound ticket to freedom to one lucky soul.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com