in: Reviews

December 14, 2014

Another BSO Worth Hearing

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Mieczyslaw Weinberg (file photo)

Mieczyslaw Weinberg (file photo)

The Brookline Symphony Orchestra demonstrated its energy, sureness of tone, style, dedication, and inspired seriousness of purpose for a good-size audience at All Saints Episcopal Church in Brookline on Saturday night; there was nothing of the amateur about this recently-reconstituted group. The performance showed standards of confidence and polish, in line with those of the New England Philharmonic and the Boston Civic. Andy Icochea Icochea, director of Voices Boston, which supplemented the orchestra with a children’s chorus of about 30, conducted the single work: the Symphony No. 6 of Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996).

Also known as Moisei (Moishe) Samuilovich Vainberg in transliteration, the Polish Weinberg spent his life after the age of 20 in Russia. A prolific composer who wrote 25 symphonies among many other works, he is still so little known that he is not even included at all in the 1980 New Grove, although fortunately he is now well accounted for in the newest and on-line editions. Weinberg was Dmitri Shostakovich’s disciple, neighbor and close friend rather than his student. He suffered as a Jew in the Soviet Union under Stalin; arrested in 1953 and charged with “Jewish bourgeois nationalism,” he was imprisoned for two months. Probably only the death of Stalin prevented Weinberg’s liquidation.

The Sixth Symphony, composed 1962-63, nominally in A minor, lasts for 45 minutes, and contains five movements, three with children’s chorus singing Russian poetic texts. The entire symphony is suffused with an expressive sadness that only occasionally becomes explicit, sometimes overridden by a fierce determination. There seems to be a certain kinship between this symphony and Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony (which as a “war symphony” is much more persuasive than his better-known Seventh “Leningrad”), yet Weinberg’s harmonic materials are more intimately expressive, and his soloistic orchestral textures, seemingly inspired by Mahler’s, are often clearer than Shostakovich’s. This was evident from the very start, in the 12-minute-long opening Adagio. The text of the second movement, Allegretto, is “Skripochka” (Little Violin) by Leib Kvitko, a child’s fairy-tale vision of violin enchantment, and this is of course a beloved Jewish folk motif that has echoes in some of Shostakovich as well as Fiddler on the Roof and, obliquely, Stravinsky’s l’Histoire du soldat. The orchestra’s concertmaster, Amos Lawrence, excelled in the prominent solos in this lighthearted movement; yet the entire symphony, especially in the Adagio first movement, was dominated by expansive upper-register melody for all the violins, in which the solo violin appears only as a psychological contrast.

The orchestra calls for woodwinds by threes and expanded brass, with six horns often prominently featured in high unison, treacherous in register but with expressive melodic declamation that was convincing. There was plenty of this in the third movement, Allegro molto, a galloping march at high speed that oscillated between 4/4 meter and 6/8 (I think), with full brass and a plenty of extra percussion energizing a wild ride in pursuit of victory; this was the only time I perceived any brief problems of orchestral coordination. This soon yielded to tragedy in the fourth movement, Largo, with chorus, on a poignant Holocaust text, “In the red clay, a ditch was dug…” by Samuil Galkin (originally in Yiddish), had an apparent kinship to Yevtushenko’s “Babiy Yar,” which Shostakovich used in his Thirteenth Symphony, from about the same time as this work. The Largo is continuous with the fifth movement, Andantino; the two together amount to 17 minutes, including a third poem, “Sleep, people, rest,” by Mikhail Lukonin. The text concludes “Sleep, people, rest, the sun will rise, / Violins will play about peace on earth.” There was no shouting here; the symphony ends as quietly as it began, in muted but moving sorrow.

Weinberg’s Sixth Symphony impressed this listener as important; lyrical and dramatic at once, it evinces structural cohesion and expressive depth that I often fail to find in Shostakovich. The piece constitutes a powerful reminder, too, that we in America know far too little of the music that originated in Russia during the Soviet era; Shostakovich remains a very important figure even in the West, of course, as does Prokofiev (whose best successes came before his return to Russia), but not all of his music is as good as is often proclaimed, and much of it still tends to overshadow other Russian composers who are surely worthy of our attention.

Congratulations to the Brookline Symphony overall for a warm and even brilliant performance, and to the children of Voices Boston, who sang clearly and with good diction, and their adroit conductor Andy Icochea Icochea, who kept everything well organized and well balanced in the quirky acoustics of a big stone church. Thanks also to Cashman Kerr Prince, well known to the readers of these pages, for his informative program notes (a member of the orchestra’s Board of Directors, he was also assistant principal in the cello section); and to Lidiya Yankovskaya, who translated the Russian texts—my review of  her expert conducting of Lakmé is here .

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably,  harmony.

2 Comments

  1. Uh was there a conductor ?

    Comment by R Lhevinne — December 15, 2014 at 9:25 pm

  2. RL — The third sentence of the review, omitting some description of the man, says, “Andy Icochea Icochea … conducted the single work: the Symphony No. 6 of Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996).” What makes it confusing is that the part I’ve omitted identifies him as the director of the organization which supplied the chorus. We’re not used to thinking of the chorus director as also being the conductor of the ensemble.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — December 15, 2014 at 10:04 pm

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