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The Promethean Enigmas

New York
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
02/11/2018 -  
“Sight and Sound”: “Shostakovich, Michelangelo and the Artistic Conscience”
Dmitri Shostakovich: Suite On Verses of Michelangelo, Opus 145a

Tyler Duncan (Baritone)
The Orchestra Now, Leon Botstein (Expounder, Founder, Conductor)

M. Buonarroti (by Jacopino Del Conte, around 1540)/D. Shostakovich

“Certainly he was sent into the world to be an example to men of art, that they should learn from his life and from his works; and I count among my greatest blessings that I was born in the time when Michelangelo was alive, and was counted worthy to have him for my master, and to be treated by him as a familiar friend.”
Giorgio Vasari, painter and historian (1511-1574)

Never in its three years of existence have the young musicians of The Orchestra Now sounded more vibrant, rarely has a vocal soloist been as convincing and expressive as the Canadian baritone Tyler Duncan. Yet this afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art belonged solely to Leon Botstein.

As a conductor, he was in top form with Shostakovich’s very last song-cycle. And this so rare performance here–echoed only five days before with three of the original piano songs, by Trifonov and Goerne–was so accessible, so moving, and so confessional (the last word Mr. Botstein’s). But for some of us, the Botstein lecture–and I use that academic word with regret–gave, as always, a singularity to the music not found in any volume.

We who do our homework for a Botstein concert, knew the composer’s moods, his feelings about death, his longing for a better translation, his feeling that this was a Mahleresque 16th Symphony blahblahblah. Only Mr. Botstein could bring together the Michelangelo personality, the Renaissance attitude to the unity of artistic creativity. Thus Michelangelo’s sonnets, more personal in fact than those of Petrarch.

Mr. Botstein could then segue effortlessly to the Soviet Union and its supposed music for the people. (Not mentioning that Lenin loved Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata above any other music). And how this contradiction was both a poison and a passion for Shostakovich.

As the composer’s ups and downs in the official Soviet hagiography, Mr. Botstein had the perfect reason. “Censors,” he said categorically, “are stupid people.” And having once been on the Thailand Film Censorship Committee to see how it worked, I must agree, present writer excepted.

The revelations of Michelangelo’s geographical and Shostakovich’s emotional exiles, and how they dealt with them continued with Mr. Botstein and his The Orchestra Now (I hate that name!) giving a series of examples on this most splendid Shostakovich work.

Lasting around 45 minutes, the work is, yes, accessible, but it does take some explaining. The sculptor “chip-chip-chip” for the verse “Creativity” is obvious. The opening trumpet anthem echoes in the penultimate “Death”, twice. The “Morning” section is cloud-filled, gloomy, dark. (I would have loved to hear Grieg’s “Morning” as a contrast, but no, this would take away from the serious moments.) And the final “toyshop” movement for “Immortality”, already known from the deceivingly jokey 15th Symphony we now know as the first tune ever written by the nine-year-old composer.

Though I have a feeling those quirky measures were added in this work.

T. Duncan/L. Botstein (© Tatiana Daubek/Bard.Edu)

After the intermission, The Orchestra Now and the young Tyler Duncan got to work. Perhaps to the artists it was not a seamless performance, but in the audience, I was so stunned by hearing this live–with such an expressive baritone–that masterly was the only adjective.

What had been singer-less excerpts before now became dark and even overwhelming epic songs. The orchestra was not against the singer, but never ever seemed to accompany him. “Love”, for instance, isn’t romantic love, but the ebullient airy love of wind instruments merrily tootling against Mr. Duncan’s more sober Russian verse. “Anger” (translated badly on the stage as “wrath”, which implies revenge) was a spiritual anger, but it banged away with awesome percussion.

And Mr. Duncan essayed all the songs with a rich, expressive baritone. Like his piano music, Shostakovich understood the vocal instrument so perfectly that Mr. Duncan needed no straining, no work outside of the usual gamut. That, however, meant within the compass of the poems, he could exercise whatever feeling–tempestuous, tormented, graceful, mysterious, with hints of Renaissance modality–that were necessary.

This was also a work where the composer never exercised his acerbic sarcasm, those caustic comments about...well, we don’t always know the subject!

Mr. Botstein was obviously so confident with Tyler Duncan’s work that he could devote himself entirely to the ensemble. The brass, the great bass drums, the toyshop winds and the best string ensemble I’ve heard from this group was not only a satisfying performance by The Orchestra Now, but a ravishing performance which balanced on the cusp of Shostakovich’s “Immortality”.

CODA: This was actually a four-part concert. The exposition, screening of Michelangelo’s sketches, the performance. And a short but enlightening Q & A. Here Mr. Botstein gave a most needed explanation. One well-meaning questioner who said he “knew a lot about Shostakovich”, opined that the composer’s disillusion with the Soviet Union made the Suite on Verses of Michelangelo a kind of “Secular Requiem for the country.”

Mr. Botstein politely but firmly put that opinion in the fireplace! Yes, the composer had his sharp differences with the country, but he was never anything but a lover of his country, and he would have been shocked to offer a “requiem” for the always living Mother Russia.

Having had many conversations with Maxim Shostakovich when he became a conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, I agree wholeheartedly.

Then again, in emotionally underdeveloped countries like the United States, the Manichean attitude of Good-Versus-Evil is always prevalent. It takes an honest historian like Leon Botstein to give the lie to attitudes which are not only simplistic but in our present atmosphere, dangerous.

Harry Rolnick



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