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Music As Political Passion

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/04/2008 -  & October 1st, 2nd (Toronto)
Kurt Weill: The Seven Deadly Sins Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 in G Minor “The Year 1905”, Opus 103

Ute Lemper (Vocalist), Hudson Shad Vocal Quartet: Mark Bleeke, Eric Edlund, Peter Becker, Wilbur Pauley
Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (Musical Director and Conductor)

Peter Oundjian and the Toronto Symphony
(© Cylla von Tiedemann)

The two featured composers for the Toronto Symphony last night are frequently dubbed “political composers” But that description is far from adequate.

Kurt Weill was a most serious composer, who had studied with Schoenberg, wrote complex symphonies and concertos as well as a few of the best songs ever to grace the Broadway stage (“September Song” has never been bettered.) Yet, when working with his sometime partner, Bertolt Brecht, Weill had to notate words which were partly Marxist, partly fantasy, partly Freudian, and all blazing with the cynicism of an idealistic misanthrope fighting against Hitler, National Socialism and humanity in general.

So blatant and blazing were Brecht’s words that Weill created musical sarcasm to accompany them. The surface simplicity was an illusion, for his theatre music with Brecht, whether Threepenny Opera or last night’s Seven Deadly Sins can mesmerize listeners.

When written, in 1933, Brecht and Weill lived in a country bordering on anarchy ready for fascism. Shostakovich was honored in a country which had achieved a sort of Marxism, and equally execrable. But Shostakovich did not (and could not) wear his political heart on his sleeve. Generations will battle over his musical symbology, or his attempts in using historical events to illustrate current problems. Like Weill, his musical sarcasm was mordant. But that sarcasm was severely rationed. And in the work last night, his very political “1905” symphony, it is never heard at all.

The contrast, then, of Seven Deadly Sins and the 11th Symphony was all too illuminating. But the performances were of such quality that it gave us—later—an opportunity to pierce into the apposition.

Without the growling of a Lotte Lenya—Weill’s wife and the “onlie true begetter” of this music—the composer could well have chosen Ute Lemper for The Seven Deadly Sins. She has been singing Weill for over three decades now, though is hardly limited, since composers like Tom Waits, Philip Glass and Elvis Costello have all written for her, for her voice, her control and her very presence is riveting.

But where recordings of Lenya show her growling, virtually spitting out the German (an easy language to spit!), Ms Lemper, carrying a cabaret mike, grabbing attention with the slightest moves, gave a dramatic intensity to this very complex ballet with singing.

It would be so easy to camp this up, for some of the words are almost surrealistic. Brecht, for no particular reason, associates the sins with seven cities—Baltimore, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia etc. (No New York? Nah! We’re as pure, said Dorothy Parker, as the driven slush.) But Ute Lemper takes the intensity of the verses seriously, playing two characters named Anna, and jousting with the “family” played with equal intensity and some humor by the Hudson had Vocal Quartet.

No, this was not a cabaret or ballet performance. It was very much Carnegie Hall, so the intimacy was non existent. Instead, though, we had a vibrant energetic performance by the Toronto Symphony under their Musical Director, Peter Oundjian. We had to suspend our disbelief in this august hall with its shimmering chandelier, and that was never easy. But Ms Lemper’s voice, which never cracked into a mere Jeremiad but kept the notes, gave a piercing show.

I think it was Virgil Thomson who said that “when Weill reaches you, you crack up inside.” He probably heard the music in a bistro. We never had that opportunity, but it was still heart-cracking music.

The Shostakovich symphony is equally political, but nobody yet knows what the politics are. In theory, it was about the first worker’s revolution in 1905. On the other hand, it was written in 1956, right after the Hungarian Revolution, and some say it was anti-Russian. The composer himself said it was his most “Mussorgskyian” composition (whatever that means). And several years ago, I read an analysis which pinpointed every musical quotation, with revolutionary words, showing the positions in the work were violently anti-Stalinist.

I take no sides, except the side of Peter Oundjian, who turned the Toronto Symphony Orchestra into an ensemble which was taut, tense, and quivering with the epic breadth which the hour-long work deserves. The orchestral massacre, the long drawn-out Adagio, and the opening, with the dawn breaking over the Kremlin Square each were held as if on a ray of light.

The son et lumière visual effect of changing the lighting from dawn-like shadows to radiance was original, but hardly necessary. Shostakovich took care of that with the frozen icy opening. But it was hardly distracting, not with such an orchestra and such a program.

Even more important, both works, resting on the pinnacle of ideology, showed feelings which we have lost in the American circus. Perhaps Toronto has more thrilling politics than we do, but I doubt whether either country can live up to the passion of these two passionately committed composers.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s website
Ute Lemper’s website

Harry Rolnick



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