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ASO performs music of post-Stalin Soviet Union on Feb 24

With the death of Josef Stalin in 1953, the dictator’s chilling grip on Soviet life finally began to loosen, after three decades. What became known as “the Thaw” resulted in, among other things, a flowering of new musical compositions, full of ideas and innovations that before might have resulted in a sentence to Siberia. The American Symphony Orchestra’s 2008 program “Russian Futurists” told a story of composers who briefly thrived just before Stalin came to power. The ASO’s next program, “After the Thaw”, on Wednesday, February 24 at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, picks up the thread like a sequel, telling the fascinating tale of three composers who managed to survive Stalinist terror and stagnation only to be bypassed in the march of post-Cold War history.

Leon Botstein, music director of the ASO, writes in his program essay:

The politics of the Cold War, the passage of time and the erasure of memory have determined that most of the music written by Soviet composers born after the Revolution remains largely unknown to the West. The only exceptions are a few figures from the late 1970s and 1980s, émigrés such as Alfred Schnittke and Arvo Pärt. But there is a good deal of irony here. Those composers who remained in Soviet Russia and managed to balance official favor with independence and originality and created work of artistic merit may have succeeded at home, but they skillfully skirted domestic danger only to be derided in the West. And those who were censured at home were effectively silenced and are now forgotten . . .But today, absent the Cold War, surely these works need no longer suffer from the political notoriety of their Soviet composers. 

Botstein notes that the only composers from the 70 years of the Soviet Union to have unalloyed acceptance in the mainstream West are Prokofiev and Shostakovich. But the Soviet state’s investment in music education, ironically, nurtured several generations of highly talented composers. “Each of whom was forced, like Shostakovich and Prokofiev, to come to terms with the regime as their master,” Botstein says. “But these composers, if they desired, found clever ways to elude becoming mere hacks. They developed strong individual voices and ways to circumvent control by encoding complex and contradictory meanings in music where surface and interior were intentionally inconsistent with one another. Shostakovich is understood by many to have mastered this strategy, using irony and sarcasm in music to powerful effect.”

The composers surveyed in “After the Thaw” include Alexander Lokshin (1920-87), a Siberian native who studied with the symphonist (and Prokofiev’s great friend) Nikolai Miaskovsky. Like Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khachaturian and Miaskovsky, Lokshin was condemned in the Soviet regime’s infamous 1948 crackdown on “formalism” – a conveniently nebulous pejorative for art that failed to meet the government’s demand for reductive aesthetics and ideological conformity. Lokshin was fired from the Moscow Conservatory, forcing him to eke out a freelance living by writing music for films. But his long-term neglect came from another angle: Two former inmates of the Soviet Gulag implicated Lokshin as an informer, something he denied but that would stain his reputation in freer times. Yet, according to scholar Laurel E. Fay, Lokshin wrote music of integrity, influenced not only by Schubert and Brahms but by Mahler and Berg. His Symphony No. 1 of 1957 originally featured a Latin religious text, making it impossible to perform in the Soviet Union. The ASO’s program presents the U.S. premiere of Lokshin’s only purely instrumental symphony, his 15-minute Fourth (“Sinfonia Stretta”), of 1968.

Also on the program is the Symphony No. 5 of 1976 by Boris Tishchenko (born in 1939), a student of composer Galina Ustvolskaya, a subsequent leader of Russia’s “Petersburg School” and a close friend of Shostakovich. (Tishchenko, according to Fay, also admired Lokshin.) Tishchenko and Shostakovich often debated and shared their music, with the elder composer re-orchestrating one of Tishchenko’s symphonies as a gift. Tishchenko dedicated his Third Symphony to Shostakovich, and his Fifth Symphony is a memorial for him, written after Shostakovich’s death in 1975. Tishchenko quotes from Shostakovich’s works and weaves in his musical monogram (the famous “DSCH” motif). Tishchenko also references his own works, such as his Third Symphony, creating a dialogue between his music and that of his idol.

Virtually every Soviet composer of note wrote pieces for cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, postwar Russia’s foremost musical ambassador. Among them was Boris Tchaikovsky (1925-96), one of the few composers Rostropovich rated as “genius”. His Cello Concerto of 1964 – to be performed with the ASO by Swiss cellist Anita Leuzinger, a 2008 Naumburg Foundation prizewinner – was the second of three works Tchaikovsky wrote for Rostropovich. A Muscovite unrelated to his famous namesake, Tchaikovsky studied with Shebalin, Shostakovich and Miaskovsky. After an initial brush with notoriety (after his teachers were denounced in 1948), he went on to find favor, winning a State Prize in 1969 for his Second Symphony and, for his 60th birthday, being named a People’s Artist of the U.S.S.R.

Such awards did Boris Tchaikovsky few favors for his reputation in the West, earning him a tag as an “official” composer when Rostropovich brought his concerto to New York. But in the program booklet, Ms. Fay writes that Tchaikovsky “was modest, principled and remained aloof to politics, both governmental and professional. A traditionalist by predilection, he was largely indifferent to the avant-garde experiments pursued by other composers after the onset of ‘the Thaw’. Within his aesthetic comfort zone, however, he was by no means indifferent to innovation . . . forging a recognizable style that synthesizes intellectual refinement and emotional directness.” The ASO also performs the U.S. premiere of Tchaikovsky’s 20-minute Music for Orchestra – from 1987 and the cusp of a very different era: that of Gorbachev and Perestroika.

Botstein insists, “None of the composers on this program deserves to be dismissed solely because they worked within the system of the Soviet Union . . . Since our political context as listeners is so different now, we can discover finely crafted music that has the welcome benefit of accessibility. We can listen without bias.”

Maestro Botstein’s pre-concert talks, which he began delivering last season starting 75 minutes before each concert, provide added insight into the rich and unusual programming that characterizes ASO’s Lincoln Center series. His illuminating talk on music ‘After the Thaw’ starts at 6:45 pm in Avery Fisher Hall, shortly before the concert program.

All tickets to the ASO’s Lincoln Center concerts are just $25 and are available by calling (212) 868-9276 (9ASO) or visiting All ticket sales are final.

The American Symphony Orchestra’s 2009-10 season and programs are made possible, in part, through support from National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.  Additional support is provided by Atlantic Philanthropies, Bay and Paul Foundation, Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, GG Group, Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, HBO, Carroll, Guido, & Groffman, LLP, DuBose & Dorothy Heyward Memorial Fund, Faith Golding Foundation, The Fan Fox and Leslie Samuels Foundation, Open Society Institute, Per Annum, Inc., Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Solon E. Summerfield Foundation, The David and Sylvia Teitelbaum Fund, and The Winston Foundation.


Wednesday, February 24, 8:00 pm

Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
“After the Thaw”

Alexander Lokshin: Symphony No. 4 (1968) U.S premiere
Boris Tchaikovsky: Concerto for Cello and Symphonic Orchestra (1964) *
Boris Tishchenko: Symphony No. 5 (1976)
Boris Tchaikovsky: Music for Orchestra (1987) U.S. premiere  
American Symphony Orchestra
*Anita Leuzinger, cello
Leon Botstein, conductor


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© 21C Media Group, January 2010




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