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Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and... Rossini?

Left: Rachel Lee Priday / Right: Julia Bentley
Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and... Rossini?
From Russia, Before and After the Revolution

The BPO this concert season continues to surprise and delight by its exceptionally innovative and interesting programming. This weekend’s pair of Kleinhans Hall concerts, on Saturday May 9 at 8pm and Sunday May 10 at 2:30pm extends the streak, with guest conductor Leon Botstein, who has been the president of Bard College since 1975, leading the orchestra in its first ever performance of Shostakovich’s final symphony, the Symphony No. 15 in A major, Op. 141. The program also includes a performance of Prokofiev’s exquisitely lyrical Violin Concerto No. 1 featuring the exciting young American violinist, Rachel Lee Priday. More about how Rossini fits into this program in a moment.

Sergei Prokofiev finished a much expanded version of what had started out as a small scale concertino in 1917, when Russia was in the midst of a revolution. “I spent the summer of 1917 in the country near St. Petersburg all alone, reading Kant and working a great deal,” the composer related in his autobiography. Choosing to distance himself from the turbulent political events in his country proved to be very productive for Prokofiev, as he composed his First Symphony and a pair of piano sonatas, as well as his First Violin Concerto. The premiere of the work was scheduled to take place that November, but violent political events made that impossible. Prokofiev emigrated, first to America, then to Paris, where the premiere took place in 1923. Critical reception was initially cool, with the composer being accused of employing a compositional style that was too influenced by Mendelssohn, as if that was somehow a problem. But eventually, due in no small measure to the determined advocacy of the Hungarian virtuoso violinist Joseph Szigeti, the work took its rightful place in the repertory as one of the violin concerto masterpieces of the 20th century.

Dmitri Shostakovich is the best known Russian composer of the generation that followed that of Prokofiev. Unlike Prokofiev however, he spent his entire life in the USSR, and his large compositional output is indelibly tinged by his very fraught relationship to, and his status in, the Soviet state. After setting controversial texts by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko in his Thirteenth Symphony in 1962 and basing his Fourteenth Symphony in 1969 on a cycle of song about death, the surface “lightness” of his final symphony from 1971seems enigmatic. Shostakovich unexpectedly quotes excerpts from the works of many earlier composers in his final symphony, with the initial shock in the first movement being provided by his repeated quoting of the most popular theme from Rossini’s William Tell Overture. What exactly is going on here? Program notes at the first performance said that this music depicted a toyshop at night, but listening to the rest of the quoted excerpts in subsequent movements, most surprisingly those from several operas by Wagner including Die Walküre, Götterdämmerung and Tristan und Isolde, as well as from many of his own works, lead to the conclusion that the composer was very much intent on incorporating his conflicting thoughts on the role of the composer in bringing about, or failing to bring about, change in a totalitarian society. The Swiss patriot of freedom William Tell was the kind of man of action that Shostakovich admired, but felt unable to emulate, in his role as a composer in a repressive regime.

Information: 885-5000 or

"A Musical Feast” takes a deep breath

Mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley, a Buffalo audience favorite, will be joined by pianist Kuang-Hao Huang in an innovative program, which will include a solo selection by modern dancer Melanie Aceto, who received a rave review from the New York Times for a recent New York City performance for the final concert in this season’s “A Musical Feast” series in the Burchfield Penny Art Center on Friday May 8 at 8pm. The event is dedicated to, and inspired by, the memory of the poet Robert Creeley, a longtime resident of our city.

So Quiet Here is an electronically-enhanced work by UB composer David Felder that incorporates the voice of Creeley reading several of his other poems, including the subtly lyrical “Buffalo Evening.”

Breath is all-important, of course, both in spoken poetry and in song, and rather more unexpectedly to many people, also in dance, and the rest of this highly original program examines these intriguing connections.

The Burchfield Penny hosted several events in the recent wonderful, citywide, week-long festival devoted to the American composer Charles Ives, so it is appropriate that this concert includes Ives’ Four French Songs, written while he was a student at Yale, that demonstrate his remarkable ability to compose in the traditional French chanson 19th century style.

The Berlin-based German composer Ruth Wiesenfeld has been concerned with exploring the quality of presence in performance, and she employs a compositional approach that originates from the question of what might lead a person to seek musical or sounding utterance, exploring these themes in her two brief works for solo voice, Air—like murmuring winds and Ruins. She is also represented by her work open—close, for accordion and voice, inspired by her reading of “Un Coup De Dés” by the French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé.

Apparition, a work for soprano and amplified piano by the American composer George Crumb, consists of elegiac songs on texts by Walt Whitman from “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” an extended elegy that Whitman wrote shortly after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Choreographer and performer Melanie Aceto, inspired by her collaborations with the extraordinary young Turkish vocalist and composer Esin Gündüz, composed Vent, an exploration of our vulnerable and expressive relationship with breath. Using consonant sounds, Melanie uses her breath as propulsion and restriction, creating a score that both accompanies and drives her movement.

The Austrian pianist and composer Artur Schnabel is best remembered for the profundity, vitality and spirituality with which he imbued his interpretations of the master pieces of the greatest Austrian and German composers. He also composed a sizable body of works that are almost exclusively atonal, perhaps reflecting his lifelong friendship with his fellow countryman Arnold Schonberg. Schnabel’s works are now very rarely ever performed, including his work on this program, Seven Early Songs, Op. 14 composed in 1899-1902.

Tickets: $20/$10 students/Burchfield Penney members.

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