CSO, Riccardo Muti soar to new heights in Shostakovich program

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Zell Music Director Riccardo Muti leads the CSO in its first subscription concert of the season featuring Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 (Babi Yar) with Russian Bass Alexey Tikhomirov in his CSO debut as soloist and the Men of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018

Few composers have left as profound a portrait of their times in their music as Dmitri Shostakovich.

Born in 1906, died in 1975, the Russian composer lived a life stretching from the unrest before the Russian Revolution to the stifling ideologies of the Cold War. He lived through World War I, the Russian Revolution, the horrors of Stalin’s regime and the bloody years of World War II that left 20 million Soviet civilians and military dead. Descriptive titles invoking specific moments in history have stuck to several of Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies: No. 7 (“Leningrad”), No. 11 (“The Year 1905”), No. 12 (“The Year 1917”). His 15 strings quartets, with their moments of aching loneliness and cynical, cruel humor, reveal much about the atmosphere in Russia during his lifetime.

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Friday night, with music director Riccardo Muti on the podium, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra offered the last of Shostakovich’s titled symphonies: the rarely performed Symphony No. 13 (“Babi Yar”). It was the first concert of the CSO’s new Symphony Center season, and the audience’s mood was festive. But Muti channeled that excitement into rapt, almost reverent attention with a searing performance of a dramatic work that is very close to his heart. After the performance, Shostakovich’s 84-year-old widow, Irina Shostakovich, joined Muti onstage for a brief discussion.

Composed in 1962 for bass soloist, male chorus and orchestra, Symphony No. 13 is set to five poems by contemporary Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The opening poem, “Babi Yar,” was prompted by Yevtushenko’s visit in 1961 to a ravine in Kiev, Ukraine, where more than 30,000 Jews had been shot early in World War II. The Soviets hushed up the 1941 massacre, and Yevtushenko’s poem describing the site and denouncing Russian anti-Semitism was roundly condemned. Shostakovich was also criticized for setting it to music, and, after a handful of performances, the symphony was all but banned in the Soviet Union. Receiving a smuggled microfilm of the score in 1970, Muti conducted the symphony’s first performance in the west, in Rome. Shostakovich received a tape of that performance, praised it and kept it until his death.

Zell Music Director Riccardo Muti escorts Irina Shostakovich, widow of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, off the stage in Orchestra Hall after their post-concert conversation following the CSO’s performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 (“Babi Yar”), on S

Zell Music Director Riccardo Muti escorts Irina Shostakovich, widow of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, off the stage in Orchestra Hall after their post-concert conversation following the CSO’s performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 (“Babi Yar”), on Sept. 21, 2018. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018

The CSO’s performance, with bass Alexey Tikhomirov and the men of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, revealed Muti’s continuing devotion to Shostakovich’s often-shattering music. Especially in the first three poems, “Babi Yar,” “Humor” and “In the Store,” Muti and his musicians found the perfect balance of oppressive menace, shrieking outrage and deep melancholy that makes Shostakovich’s music so intensely human.Tikhomirov’s voice doesn’t have the dark, sepulchral color so typical of Russian basses, but its lighter texture brought a conversational quality to his Russian-language, long-lined melodies. In Yevtushenko’s images of a haunted ravine, weary women waiting in an endless food line and the antic figure, humor, Tikhomirov was a spell-binding storyteller.

Throughout the opening movement, the steady, slow tread of the male chorus singing in unison was an ominous presence. As they led us through Babi’s Yar’s desolate ravines, a single chime rang like a funeral bell above the unmarked burial ground. At times, the orchestra exploded with brutal, puffing brass and taunting, galumphing woodwinds, vivid illustrations of Yevtushenko’s images of Jews encircled by threatening crowds.

In the third movement, “In the Store,” the atmosphere was quieter. As Tikhomirov described exhausted women lining up for food, Shostakovich’s restless music often settled into the simple cadences of a hymn, a song of praise for Russian women, “their families’ guardian angels.”

The final movement, “A Career,” was not as strong. Reading the program book’s English translation, Yevtushenko’s denunciation of “careerists” sounded dated. By the close of the nearly hourlong symphony, Shostakovich’s music had become predictable.

The concert opened with more sprightly fare, Sinfonietta by Prokofiev, composed in 1909 and revised twice by 1929. With its amiable, ambling rhythms, the first movement was full of good cheer, abetted by zesty woodwinds. The second movement was a dreamy nocturne, with the whispers of the CSO’s low strings creating a restless, ever-shifting fog. It was a fitting prelude to the sorrows of “Babi Yar,” a reminder of how peaceful and beautiful life can be.

In remarks before the Shostakovich symphony, Muti called it “a deep warning document for us and future generations. Every form of dictatorship,” he said, “should be banned. It’s about time that we find peace in this tragic world.”

After the concert, Irina Shostakovich sat onstage with Muti. She and the conductor are friends; after Shostakovich’s death she gave Muti the tape of his 1970 “Babi Yar” performance that her husband had cherished.

Speaking through a translator, she answered a question about Yevtushenko’s dubious optimism at the end of his poem, “Fear,” the symphony’s fourth movement. Did Shostakovich really think that fear was dying in Russia in 1962? Speaking through a translator, she responded that fear exists in every country, in every society. Perhaps the symphony, she said, can give listeners “courage to fight the fear.”

At its best, the CSO’s “Babi Yar” was a somber call for courage.

Wynne Delacoma is a local freelance writer.

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