In 1961, when Dmitri Shostakovich decided to put together five poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko and write his 13th symphony around them, he was pretty intent on music's power to fight human, political battles. The piece he wrote, "Babi Yar," begins by telling the story of how Nazis slaughtered 33,000 Soviet Jews and left them in a ravine -- a massacre the Soviet government ignored, hence solidifying their obvious anti-Semitism (and please don't think for a second that this piece is simply a historical record of one government condoning inhuman acts; something tells me this piece isn't on W.'s iPod playlist).
At any rate, I recently heard this work performed by the LA Phil, James Conlon, and the important new baritone Nmon Ford. I won't spoil you whatever virtues reading my LA Times review of the show can offer (see a text version after the jump). But I will introduce this short review -- a piece that didn't offer me the room to discuss the following issue -- by saying that even if violinist Hillary Hahn had launched the concert with Sibelius and nothing interesting to follow her, it would have been a bland night.
Hahn recieves amazing reviews from critics around the globe, and if you close your eyes when she plays, you will hear CD-quality musicmaking. But compared to Greek violin innovator Leonidas Kavakos and the Sibelius performance he offered at Disney last year, Hahn simply plays too traditionally, too polished, and seems way too uninterested in her role. Saturday night, she bopped her head a bit to the sounds of the full-orchestra passages, but she seemed rather like a young Stepford Wife trying to chair-dance at a fundraiser.
I don't like to be mean, and Hahn does make beautiful, if predictable, sounds (and lots of money for classical music). But I wonder if her performance Saturday night just wasn't something she wanted to do -- or if she's just not quite as connected to her heart in a life-and-death way as other violinists who put more on the line. Or willing to share it. The question, I guess, is: Would the LA Phil have been able to fill Disney hall with only Babi Yar on the program? Unlikely. The LAT review after the jump...
The perfect voice for 'Babi Yar'
Baritone Nmon Ford steps in to breathe life into Shostakovich's take on a Russian tragedy.
By Adam Baer
Special to The Times
January 23, 2006
Some of music's greatest debuts have illness to thank. A celebrated artist cancels, and a new young gun steps in at the last minute to win raves. Los Angeles Philharmonic audiences over the weekend enjoyed one such occasion when Panamanian American baritone Nmon Ford substituted for Russian opera specialist Vladimir Ognovenko, who had to cancel his solo performances in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13, "Babi Yar."
Saturday night, with inspired conductor James Conlon on the podium — and violinist Hillary Hahn preceding with a stellar, if routine, performance of Sibelius' Violin Concerto — Ford led with uncommon vocal power and emotional richness a full orchestra and the men of the Pacific Chorale through Shostakovich's most tragic and human work.
"Babi Yar," Conlon said before the performance, is the ultimate example of how Shostakovich turned serious music — which historically dealt with human emotion, literature, myth and landscape — into a vehicle to express political strife — in this case, the experience of being Russian during the Soviet era.
Set to poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko assembled into a cycle by the composer, the symphony begins by relaying accounts of Sept. 29, 1941, when Nazis killed 33,000 Soviet Jews and left them in a ravine — a massacre the government wouldn't acknowledge.
The 1962 piece, which was played only twice before 20-plus years of silence, implicitly calls the Soviet reaction to Babi Yar an example of the government's program of anti-Semitism. And throughout the five movements — the jaunty second-movement scherzo celebrates humor, the following lament honors Russia's women, and the symphony comes full circle with a consideration of fear and an uplifting riff on making something of one's life — a single baritone soloist conveys these texts.
Ford wasn't just up to the challenge. With stentorian tone, intense vibrato, superb diction and a genuinely heartfelt connection to the material, he seemed the only voice fit at the moment to bring these musical poems to life. With Conlon and an orchestra humming on all cylinders too, the performance became one of the most successful of the Philharmonic season.
Conlon, who will assume the music directorship of Los Angeles Opera in the fall and consistently delivers muscular, dramatic musical shapes from his players, delves deeper than most maestros. Under his magnetic direction, this sparse and explosive work emerged with exceptionally expressive and accurate playing — from a meaty brass section, empathetic strings, eloquent lead horn and wonderfully sarcastic lead bassoonist. To say nothing of the empowered male choir and an overall sense of purpose from every musician.
In short, stay tuned for some world-changing opera next season.