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KC STAR: Kansas City Symphony ends season with world premiere and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5

THE CLASSICAL BEAT
May 31

BY PATRICK NEAS
Special to The Star

The Kansas City Symphony season finale promises lots of excitement, with a world premiere and Dmitri Shostakovich’s thrilling Symphony No. 5.

Classical superstar Yuja Wang was scheduled to join the Symphony for its final program of the season, but she canceled and has been replaced with pianist Joyce Yang.

The program will open with “A Single Candle” by Chris Rogerson. The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Chicago Sun-Times have all praised Rogerson’s music, and Stern counts himself as one of the composer’s fans, too.

“He knows what he’s writing, he has an excellent ear, and I think his music connects with the listener in a really direct and emotional way,” he said. “Chris is a very talented young guy, and I think he’s written us a terrific piece that will help make for a varied and powerful program. It’s extremely well-crafted music, and I’m really looking forward to working with the piece and making it happen.”

The second half of the concert will feature one of the greatest works of the Soviet era, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5.

Shostakovich always enjoyed pushing the envelope. That wasn’t a problem in the 1920s when artistic experimentation was tolerated and even encouraged in the Soviet Union, but that openness was slammed shut when Joseph Stalin consolidated his power in the 1930s.

In 1936, the dictator attended a performance of Shostakovich’s erotic, expressionistic opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” and was offended by what he considered its un-Soviet values. The opera provoked a denunciation of Shostakovich in Pravda that some say Stalin wrote himself.

Shostakovich began to fear for his life and shelved a performance of his edgy — and brilliant — Symphony No. 4, which he had already begun rehearsing. Instead, he wrote Symphony No. 5, which he subtitled “A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism.”

It was first performed in Leningrad on Nov. 21, 1937, to great acclaim. Audiences loved the work and gave it a half-hour ovation. Soviet critics also approved, praising the symphony for its old-fashioned proletarian values.

For years, Symphony No. 5 was considered one of the finest examples of Soviet triumphalism. Leonard Bernstein’s 1959 recording of the work with the New York Philharmonic is typical of that interpretation. But did Shostakovich really intend his Symphony No. 5 to be a celebration of Sovietism? In 1979, Solomon Volkov published “Testimony,” which is purported to be memoirs of Shostakovich. The book claimed that Shostakovich had other ideas.

“ ‘Testimony’ made the powerful and compelling case that in fact it was not supposed to be triumphant; it was supposed to be grit your teeth and bear it,” Stern said. “Clearly people like (Mstislav) Rostropovich validated that argument with their interpretations.

“In fact, the composer’s son, Maxim, who is a conductor, conducts it that way. Lenny (Bernstein) also came to adopt the second approach. Shostakovich was constantly stressed by the strictures and the sanctions the government put upon him, and I think he needed to smile through the pain, so to speak.”

As Shostakovich says in “Testimony,” the rejoicing in the final movement is forced:

“It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,’ and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’ ”

8 p.m. June 6-7 and 2 p.m. June 8. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $23-$74. 816-471-0400 or www.kcsymphony.org.


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