PostClassical Ensemble in the New Yorker | Alex Ross reviews The Shostakovich-Weinberg Connection
An excerpt from Alex Ross’ column in the April 17 issue of The New Yorker, titled
A Gathering of Orchestras in D.C.
…the city [Washington] has long been a paradise for chamber music. I grew up there, and learned the chamber repertory in such intimate, welcoming venues as Dumbarton Oaks, the Library of Congress, and the Phillips Collection. A newer addition to the scene is the PostClassical Ensemble, which, since 2003, has been presenting thematic programs in halls around town. Before Shift began, I went to the Harman Center for the Arts to attend a PostClassical event entitled “Music Under Stalin: The Shostakovich-Weinberg Connection.” The group’s music director is Angel Gil-Ordóñez; its executive director is the scholar-impresario Joseph Horowitz, who, in the nineties, staged meaty festival weekends with the late, lamented Brooklyn Philharmonic.
PostClassical also experiments with alternative formats. “Music Under Stalin” included a “theatrical interlude” in which the actor Edward Gero delivered monologues that evoked scenes from Shostakovich’s tormented life. I found these unpersuasive: Gero failed to capture the composer’s skittish manner, and the texts came from “Testimony,” the memoir dubiously attributed to Shostakovich. Other Shostakovich items on the program were invigorating. Alexander Toradze cavorted thunderously through the First Piano Concerto, and Gil-Ordóñez led a vital rendition of the Eighth Quartet, in the string-orchestra arrangement by Rudolf Barshai.
Connoisseurs came mainly for music by Mieczysław Weinberg, the Polish Jewish composer who fled to the Soviet Union in 1939 and joined the circle around Shostakovich. When Weinberg died, in 1996, he received few obituaries in the West; in the past decade, though, his name has gained lustre, with his 1968 Holocaust opera, “The Passenger,” being accorded productions around the world. Much of his large-scale symphonic writing dwells in Shostakovich’s mournful-antic shadow, yet in chamber forms Weinberg assumes a distinctive profile, his melodic fluency underpinned by a flair for tension and surprise. His output has benefitted from the advocacy of the violinist Gidon Kremer, a determined foe of usual-suspects programming, whose two Weinberg recordings, on ECM, make for an excellent introduction.
Weinberg did not escape the terrors of the Stalin era, and was briefly imprisoned, in 1953. In the wake of the Khrushchev thaw, his writing became more adventurous. His Symphony No. 10, for string orchestra (1968), which capped PostClassical’s program, encroaches on avant-garde territory: there are nebulous twelve-tone passages, scouring cluster chords, and anarchic jam sessions in which solo instruments play independently of one another. Off-kilter Baroque stylings recall Stravinsky and anticipate the meta-musical games of Alfred Schnittke. With this jaggedly original work, the follower becomes the leader: Shostakovich echoes several of Weinberg’s effects in his Thirteenth Quartet and Fourteenth Symphony.
The spectre of contemporary politics hovered here as well. The question of how artists should respond to repression no longer seems as historical or as distant as it did even a few months ago: PostClassical recently held a discussion with the Russian-born pianist Vladimir Feltsman, entitled “Artist Dissidents and Culture in the Age of Trump.” In a program note, Horowitz criticized J.F.K. for saying that the arts can thrive only in a free republic. Indeed, Shostakovich and Weinberg provide a monumental counterexample. It is, however, not difficult to imagine a nominally free but radically unequal society in which market forces drive the arts to the edge of extinction. The new potentates in Washington may feel that the dream is within reach. ♦