What’s in a date? Well, sometimes quite a lot. Take January 26, 1788, for example. Viewed through various cultural, historical and political lenses, successive generations of Australians have invested this date with a variety of meanings and associations and continue to do so. Dates also loomed large in the Soviet Russia of Dmitri Shostakovich. Years and months of revolutions, birthdays of dictators – many of these were celebrated with music and other art designed to align closely with the prevailing politics of the regime.
Music lovers with an eye to history might have hoped that this year would have seen a rare outing of Shostakovich’s 12th Symphony, given that it commemorates the revolution of 1917 that brought Lenin to power. The only problem there is that the symphony is widely regarded as the composer’s least successful, and the one most in thrall to his political masters.
Instead, Melbourne audiences have been blessed with an equally rare performance of Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony which powerfully commemorates the utterly appalling massacre of most of Kiev’s Jews by the Nazis at Babi Yar in late September 1941. No matter that the dates don’t really line up (the organisers billed the concert as marking the end of the 75th anniversary year) because truly there is never an inappropriate time to call to mind such horrors.
Driven by the enthusiasm of bass-baritone, Adrian Tamburini, who sang the important bass role in the symphony, this concert was a striking expression of the power of community music-making, not only for bringing together the large forces necessary for the Shostakovich, but for also featuring the works of two living Australian composers. The Zelman Symphony with its long, proud association back to the founding of the Melbourne Symphony, was joined by guest concertmaster, Wilma Smith who lent a friendly yet authoritative air to proceedings, working well with conductor, Mark Shiell.
Crossway, a work newly commissioned by the Zelman from Harry Sdraulig, opened the concert. Cast in a traditional four-movement mould, Crossway is a confident and expressive symphonic essay that is perhaps somewhat flavoured by American symphonists of the last century. Sdraulig, a Melbourne-born but Sydney-based composer, pays homage to his Polish grandparents; his grandmother was a member of the Polish resistance and his grandfather played trumpet in a Polish army band and was interned as a prisoner of war. The slow-movement violin solo, sensitively delivered by Smith, enhanced the work’s poignant moments.
Flautist Sally Walker was then soloist in Elena Kats-Chernin’s flute concerto, Night and Now, which is based on various aspects of the flute and of the Russian character. Walker was very much at ease within the work’s three-movements, presenting a wide variety of moods and colours, revelling particularly in the rapturous soliloquy that is the cadenza prefacing the third movement’s vigorous tarantella. Soloist and composer then joined together for a well-received encore.
Before proceeding to the Shostakovich, a brief ceremony of commemoration took place, including Brendan Zlatkis’s dramatic reading of the poem, Babi Yar, by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, that led to the composition of the symphony and a fervent account of Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, in Ravel’s haunting setting, sung by Alex Pokryshevsky, accompanied by Renata Iskhakbaev. It is noteworthy that this concert was the largest Babi Yar 75th anniversary commemoration outside of Kiev, and that it was performed in the presence of the only known survivor of the massacre to be living in Australia.
With an orchestra of over 80 players and a chorus of over 60 singers assembled on stage, conductor Mark Shiell took to the podium to deliver a direct and heartfelt account of the Shostakovich. The sheer sonic scale of the enterprise was impressive, but even more impressive is the composer’s deployment of the available forces, which Shiell enabled with admirable economy and clarity. While not without moments of imprecision, the lasting impression was of musical coherence and dramatic impact.
Tamburini sang the pivotal bass role with equal measures of utter conviction and piercing insight, tellingly using his resonant instrument to communicate the successive messages of the work’s five movements: the bleak devastation of the massacre itself, the savage healing of gallows humour, the patient suffering of Russian women, the insidious effect of fear and the ultimate realisation that only those who stand up for what is right will be remembered. The singer inhabited every mood and nuance of the score.
Prepared by Nicholas Cowall, the bass chorus effectively contributed to the work’s dark, brooding sound-world. While allowing senior students from Xavier College the unique opportunity to participate, the chorus of necessity benefitted from more mature, adult voices. While for the most part providing the requisite vocal heft, there were times (such as the climax of the third movement) when even greater choral prominence would have been welcome.
Throughout this hour of fervent music, there were many telling moments, ranging from the monumental to the intimate. From the battering down of a door in the first movement; the surreal humour of the second; the sombre, fearful irony of the fourth and the delicate celeste solo in the finale. While Shostakovich and Yevtushenko were appalled that there was no physical monument to the massacre at Babi Yar, they went on through their art to erect a far more potent and lasting memorial. Such a powerful and enduring tribute is well worth hearing, no matter the date.