Dvorak’s gifts to American music highlighted at University of Maryland – The Washington Post

By Stephen Brookes, click here to read the entire article

“When the ensemble then turned to the 1895 “American Suite,” it wasn’t as if a breath of fresh of air had swept into the hall — it was more like a bracing gale. Exuberant, unfettered, almost cinematic in its rich colors and heady sweep of ideas, the work seemed to explode with vitality and a sense of freedom and infinite possibility. Much of that was due to superb playing by the ensemble itself — led with fluidity and precision by music director Angel Gil-Ordóñez — but the music itself proved that Dvorak was no mere borrower of indigenous melodies: He had grasped the frontier mentality of America itself.

The real focus of the evening, though, was the premiere of a bold new work called “Hiawatha Melodrama,” put together by music historian Michael Beckerman and PostClassical artistic director Joseph Horowitz. Combining music from the “New World” symphony, the “American Suite” and the Violin Sonatina with a truncated version of Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha,” it suggests what Dvorak might have written if he’d completed a planned vocal work based on the epic poem. . . . Musically seamless, it built to a stirring climax and showcased Dvorak’s extraordinary gift for tone-painting.”


Interpreting Shostakovich

Joseph Horowitz

PostClassical Ensemble’s month-long “Interpreting Shostakovich” festival, in DC, began with a screening of Grigori Kozintsev’s 1970 film version of King Lear, with music by Shostakovich and Boris Pasternak’s Shakespeare translation. If ever there was a film that cannot be viewed at home in TV, this is it. On the wide screen of the National Gallery of Art’s film auditorium, and a superb sound system, Kozinstev’s Lear was the most powerful Shakespeare experience I can recall, on stage or screen.

In the course of a long and interesting post-film discussion, an audience member praised Kozintsev for his fidelity to Shakespeare. But I do not find the film Shakespearean. Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is an obvious point of inspiration. Like Boris, the Kozintsev Lear is in equal measure personal and epic. Lear himself – his repentance, sorrow, and death — is Boris. Mussorgsky’s truth-telling Holy Fool is Lear’s Fool. But Shakespeare’s play contains nothing like the film’s vast wastelands – rock and dirt and sullen skies – or its huddled or processional human hordes, a complex mass protagonist at once powerful, dangerous, and pathetic. No less than Mussorgsky, Shostakovich underlines the magnitude of the terrain and its strewn inhabitants. Serendipitously, late Shakespeare here mates with late Shostakovich: a musical idiom as spare and dissonant as the imagery and action at hand.

“Shostakovich and film” was one focus of our festival. Its featured participants included the Shostakovich scholar Solomon Volkov, who in his book Shostakovich and Stalin explores the Soviet dictator’s hands-on management of Soviet film, and speculates that Shostakovich’s usefulness as a film composer insured his survival. The festival booklet included a seminal essay, by Peter Rollberg and Roy Guenther (both of George Washington University), arguing the importance of Shostakovich’s film scores as a fresh and vital topic, notwithstanding the composer’s own denigration of this component of his creative output.

The National Gallery of Art showed three other Shostakovich-scored films, including – at the opposite extreme from Lear – Joris Ivens’ 1954 documentary Song of the Rivers, in which workers of the world unite for more than 90 minutes. Shostakovich’s potboiler music includes a proletarian song (words by Bertolt Brecht) in the style of Eisler, performed by Paul Robeson.

We also showed Tony Palmer’s 1988 film adaptation of Volkov’s Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, starring Ben Kingsley as the harrowed composer. Both Palmer and Volkov were on hand to comment. The film concludes with a fantasy: Stalin posthumously visits the dying Shostakovich and claims, “you needed me.” Shostakovich, in the book Testimony, admits no such thing; he treats Stalin with hatred and contempt as a bloodthirsty philistine. But Volkov agrees with Palmer’s Stalin. Stalin, in Volkov’s view, was a master propagandist who stage-managed the sensational success of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony in the West.

The festival’s music was supplied by violinist Dmitri Berlinski, the cellist Andrei Tchekmazov, the pianist George Vatchnadze, and PostClassical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez. Rudolf Barshai’s string orchestra transcription of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet was unforgettably reshaped by Gil-Ordonez as a Brucknerian essay in sorrowful breadth and repose – a reading in which the Washington Post’s Stephen Brookes plausibly found “unearthly luminosity.”

An ongoing debate, permeating the festival, questioned whether such iconic Shostakovich creations as the Eighth Quartet are necessarily to be understood and experienced in the context of the Stalinist conditions that imposed their morbidity. I am old enough to remember a time when Shostakovich was widely perceived in the West as a composer whose precocious genius was distorted and diluted by Soviet aesthetic dictates. (The New York Times obituary called him a loyal Communist.) After that, conventional wisdom – influenced by Testimony – shifted toward an appreciation of Shostakovich as a subversive chronicler of Soviet suffering, an ironist whose double meanings were endlessly exhumed. In Volkov’s view, such readings as Gil-Ordonez’s in DC (which he called “better than Barshai”) suggest a new chapter in Shostakovich reception history, canonizing the composer with scant lingering regard for the political circumstances shadowing his odyssey.

In any event, three decades after Shostakovich’s death, his music continues to resonate disturbingly. Pertinent, it seems to me, is Shostakovich’s discomfort (in Testimony) with a Stravinsky “personality flaw” – that he “always spoke only for himself.” Shostakovich also says, in Testimony: “Meaning in music – that must sound very strange for most people. . . . What was the composer trying to say? . . . The questions are naïve, of course, but despite their naivete and crudity, they definitely merit being asked. And I would add to them, for instance: Can music attack evil? Can it make man stop and think? Can it cry out and thereby draw man’s attention to various vile acts to which he has grown accustomed?”

The twentieth-century view that saw Stravinsky and Schoenberg towering over the contemporary musical landscape has never seemed more remote.


PostClassical Ensemble performance transcends Shostakovich’s modest intentions – Washington Post

By Stephen Brookes, Monday, November 5, 2012

There was a sizable Russian contingent in both the audience and the orchestra at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday night; not surprising, perhaps, given that it was the closing concert of the PostClassical Ensemble’s three-week festival devoted to Dmitri Shostakovich, the brilliant and controversial composer who was either a closet opponent or a passive supporter of the oppressive Soviet regime under which he worked.And it was, in every respect, a fascinating and compelling evening. The PostClassical Ensemble is famous for its innovative performances — which mix different media with unusual repertoire — and Sunday night’s concert took a fresh look at contrasting sides of Shostakovich’s character, featuring rarely heard transcriptions for string chamber orchestra of two of the composer’s most personal string quartets.

The concert opened with the Chamber Symphony for Strings in C Minor, Op. 110a, the transcription by Rudolf Barshai of Shostakovich’s autobiographical eighth quartet. Beefing up a quartet to an ensemble five times as large is risky; delicate details get lost, and edge and agility are often sacrificed for power. But under the nuanced and utterly fluid direction of Angel Gil-Ordonez, the work lost none of its roiling, acrid bite nor its unearthly luminosity. The wild-eyed allegretto was as menacing as ever, the three largo movements even more sweeping and ethereal than in the quartet version, and concertmaster Oleg Rylatko brought off the lead violin lines with genuine ferocity and power. The quartet may be a whirlwind, but in these hands, the chamber version became a tornado.

A typically PostClassical touch followed, as a recording of Shostakovich himself playing his Prelude in C Major drifted, ghost-like, from speakers high in the hall. Pianist George Vatchnadze then took the stage to play the same work (with its accompanying Fugue) as well as the Prelude and Fugue in G minor, providing an island of calm and transcendent clarity before the closing work, the Chamber Symphony for Strings in A-flat Major, Op. 118a (from the 1964 string quartet No. 10). Beautifully played, with a wonderfully scherzo-like allegro furioso and a profound, deeply moving adagio passacaglia, it proved to be a work of stunning power and grace — perhaps even more beautiful than the original version for quartet.


The Culture Report with Rob Sachs: Shostakovich Festival Brings Music, Films to Washington, DC – The Voice of Russia Radio

Rob Sachs Oct 24, 2012 00:28 Moscow Time
WASHINGTON — The Shostakovich Festival has kicked off once again in the D.C. metro area for residents to enjoy and celebrate the music of Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich with film events focused on his legacy and concerts of his music.

Host Rob Sachs talked with Solomon Volkov about the festival and the impact of Shostakovich’s music. Volkov is a music historian and author of Shostakovich’s memoirs.



Brian Bell talks with author Joseph Horowitz -WGBH

Brian Bell talks with author Joseph Horowitz about his 2012 book Moral Fire: Musical Portraits from America’s Fin-de-Siècle, which features a portrait of, among others, Henry Lee Higginson, the founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

To hear the interview, click here.

Hear PostClassical Ensemble on WETA’s “Front Row Washington” – 90.9 FM — on Monday night, July 2 at 9 pm.

This 90-minute show samples PCE renditions of George Gershwin at the Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts, Manuel de Falla at the Harman Center for the Arts, and Igor Stravinsky at Strathmore, all conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez.
Gershwin: Prelude No. 2 and Rhapsody in Blue (with improvised solos) – with pianist Genadi Zagor

Falla: Fantasia Betica and Nights in the Gardens of Spain – with pianist Pedro Carboné

Stravinsky: Concerto for Piano and Winds – with pianist Alexander Toradze

The Stravinsky performance is also featured on “Russian Accents,” an eight-hour exploration of Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff written and co-produced by PCE Artistic Director Joe Horowitz for WFMT/Chicago.

For more information


PCE’s 2012-13 Season Announcement a Success

PostClassical Ensemble hosted an event and concert on June 18 at the Russian Cultural Center in Washington DC, where they announced the performance schedule for their 2012-13 season. Here are some photos highlighting the event. (photos by Tom Wolff)


Dvořák Festival

Dvořák’s American sojourn (1892–95) is one of the most amazing chapters in the history of classical music in the United States. During this brief period he composed his best-known symphony, string quartet and concerto. And he uttered his most famous, influential and controversial words, that a “great and noble school” of American music would be founded upon “Negro melodies.”Our festival, with three concerts in four days at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park), plus an earlier event at Georgetown University, includes the world premiere of a 35-minute “Hiawatha Melodrama”—which we record for Naxos the next day.

Shostakovich Festival

This three-week festival— interpreting Shostakovich the man, Shostakovich the composer, and specific Shostakovich compositions—comprises three concerts at the National Gallery of Art, Dumbarton Concerts, and Georgetown University, as well as four film events at the National Gallery. The participants include Solomon Volkov; author of Shostakovich’s memoirs, the eminent British filmmaker Tony Palmer (“No one makes better films about musicians”—The London Times);  film historian Peter Rollberg; and music historian Roy Guenther.

National Gallery of Art

Sunday, November 4 at 6:30 pm
National Gallery of Art
West Building Main Floor, West Garden Court
Entrance at 6th Street and Constitution Avenue NW
Free admission

More information

PostClassical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez

Shostakovich/Barshai: String Symphonies Op. 110a and Op. 118a
Shostakovich: Preludes and Fugues (George Vatchnadze, piano)


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