Homage to Shostakovich: RCAS Champions Great Russian Chamber Music to New Audiences

A very special tribute to 20th Century Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich was hosted by the Austrian Embassy on December 4 with a spectacular performance by the Russian Chamber Art Society presenting both his instrumental and vocal compositions. To perform a full program of Shostakovich’s works is a tremendous feat for any musician, but the RCAS was more than up to the challenge with remarkable musicianship and technical mastery of the instruments.
Dimitri Shostakovich was one of the greatest composers of his century and even today, as in the RCAS performance under the direction of its Artistic Director Vera Danchenko, his music continues to electrify and captivate, driving the listener to an emotional edge. The concert featured the remarkable talent of pianist Vera Danchenko, violinist Victor Danchenko, cellist Nadia David, pianist Tatiana Storojev and the vocalists, mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wor, soprano Jennifer Casey Cabot and bass Nikita Storojev.
In the preface to Shostakovich’s memoir, Solomon Volkov expressed his sentiments after hearing the composer’s music, “For the first time in my life, I left a concert thinking about others instead of myself. To this day, this is the main strength of Shostakovich’s music for me.” Indeed, with the same magical musical spell that Volkoy felt, Shostakovich’s music created such an impact that we became so engrossed in the music, forgetting about ourselves.
Following the welcoming remarks by the Austrian Embassy’s Cultural Attache and Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum, Mr. Andreas Pawlitschek and the RCAS President, John Hauge, arts journalist Mr. Richard Selden provided interesting annotations on the repertoire to be performed.
Selden referred to the opening work, Opus 143 Suite for Voice and Piano, “Six Poems by Marina Tsvetaeva” a poet of Russia’s Silver Age. Born in 1892, “Tsvetaeva and her family spent the 1920s and 30s in poverty in Paris. After they returned to the Soviet Union, her husband was executed for espionage and she hanged herself in Yelabuga in 1941 during a World War II evacuation.” The performance by mezzo soprano Magdalena Wor and pianist Vera Danchenko-Stern profoundly captured the “sturm und drang” feelings that characterize many of Shostakovich’s works and particularly the poems of Marina Tsvetaeva. Magdalena Wor is indeed endowed with a beautiful, rich and velvety voice that entranced her audience.
Shostakovich wrote the “Six poems by Marina Tsvetaeva” in 1973 after the composer had been diagnosed with lung cancer in 1972. In 1973 he also traveled to Berlin, Denmark, where he received the Sonning prize and donated the prize money to the Soviet Peace Fund.
The “Trio in E Minor Op. 67” was composed in 1967. Dedicated to a deceased friend Ivan Sollertinsky, the 2nd Piano Trio features a theme from a Yiddish folk tune described as a “fervid dance of death.” The trio was also meant to honor Benjamin Fleishman, a Jewish pupil of Shostakovich killed in action during WWII and also in honor of the survivors of the Jewish Holocaust. The contrast evoked in the opening stanzas of the work between the purposeful shrill cello line performed by cellist Nadia David and the beautifully melodic violin, performed by Victor Danchenko, perhaps conveys the screaming voices of the six million plus souls murdered during the reign of terror. Vera Danchenko-Stern’s performance captured the drama, intensity and monumental structure of the piece. The trio communicated their deep understanding of the work.
In May 1966 Shostakovich suffered a heart attack. He was 60 years old and it took him two months to recuperate. He gave up chain smoking and drinking. His first composition after his heart attack was the “Romance Suite Op 127 for Soprano and Piano Trio,” based on the Poems by Alexander Blok. Suffering from a temporary composer’s block, it is said that he returned to composing having discovered a bottle of brandy his wife had hidden. “Everything came to me at once after having a glass.” Who can explain the workings of the mind of a genius?
The RCAS full ensemble performance of the “Romance Suite Op. 127” featuring soprano Jennifer Casey Cabot was both entrancing and disquieting at the same time. Accompanied by Vera Danchenko-Stern, Victor Danchenko and Nadia David, Casey Cabot performed the work without any breaks between the poems, as the composer intended. In the opening poem written for soprano and cello, “Ophelia’s Song,” the eerily beautiful melody was captured in a memorable interpretation. As the drama of the piece escalated, the RCAS ensemble delved into their own musical reservoir to deliver a moving performance.
The final piece of the concert was the “Anti-Formalist Rayok” performed by the powerfully expressive bass Nikita Storojev and pianist Tatiana Storojev. This is a work without an opus number. It was discovered in January of 1989, and is a single act satirical opera/cantata originally written for bass soloist and mixed chorus. The piece is a diatribe against the “formalism” and rigid regulations imposed on artistic expression by the Soviet government. “Socialist Realism” became the cultural aesthetic. To add to the satirical ridicule of the message, “rayok” in Russian means small paradise and the term was used in the 19th century to describe “peepshows” that were accompanied by lewd jokes from carnival like events on fairgrounds.
The work was performed with humor as bass Nikita Storojev appeared to have fun with it, changing hats and accessories to suggest the different characters represented in the work. Storojev’s beautiful resounding voice was accompanied by the equally expressive pianist Tatiana Storojev.
It is difficult to separate the suffering and drama of Shostakovich’s life from his music. With a similar “genius” as Mozart in his ability and facility to write scores with spontaneity, he was also known as a great intellect. Having lived through the era of the Bolshevik revolution and the repression of the Soviet Union, he was still a patriot, despite his bitterness for the Stalin regime. His music stands as a monument to Russia’s great cultural heritage, and the RCAS is an outstanding musical institution for championing great Russian chamber music to new audiences.

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