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This season at New England Conservatory, 30+ concerts demonstrate just how vital music is to human struggle, and what revolution in artistic expression sounds like. Programs range from roots music to Beethoven, fight songs to anti-war anthems. Join our year-long exploration of how music speaks truth to power!

Big Dreams

Stanford and Norma Jean Calderwood Director of Orchestras Hugh Wolff conducts the NEC Philharmonia in Beethoven's mightiest symphony, the Ninth, paired with Shostakovich's tiniest, the Second ("To October"). Both utilize chorus. The NEC Concert Choir, Erica Washburn, director, are featured in the Shostakovich and are joined by the Tufts University Chamber Singers, Jamie Kirsch, director, for the Beethoven.

Soloists for the Beethoven are:

Suzanne Grogan '14 MM soprano
Jessica Harika '14 MM mezzo-soprano
David Tay '14 GD tenor
Vincent Turregano '15 GD bass

Read Hugh Wolff's notes on this program.

The debate continues to rage among contemporary musicologists over whether composer Dmitri Shostakovich was a good, loyal son of the Soviet regime who nonetheless needed stern prodding to toe the party line on acceptable compositional techniques or whether he was a quiet dissident who expressed his ridicule and dismay over the regime in coded musical language. Whatever the outcome of this academic squabbling, the facts that can be stated about his Symphony No. 2 are these:

  • Shostakovich was commissioned by Lev Shuglin, a dedicated Bolshevik and head of the Propaganda Department of the State Music Publishing House to write a symphony celebrating the 10th anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution.
  • Nicknamed “To October,” the piece is one of the composer’s least known symphonic works and his shortest—clocking in at about 20 minutes.
  • The first and second halves of the work differ markedly in style: the former demonstrating a thorny, dissonant structure and the latter, with its setting of a workers’ chorus (by Alexander Bezymensky) lauding Lenin, in a much more accessible—some would say, agitprop—idiom.
  • How the first section’s forbidding style is interpreted depends to some extent on the polemical side taken by the commentators. Some feel that Shostakovich was experimenting in a very individualistic way with new progressive compositional techniques that were much in the artistic ether in the 1920s. Or he was deliberately depicting the tumultuous and painful conditions of the proletariat before the Revolution and contrasting that with the joyful resolution of the Revolution under Lenin. Regardless of his intentions, he got slammed several years later for his “formalist” procedures during the Stalinist “cultural revolution.”
  • Tonight’s performance gives listeners an opportunity to judge for themselves the artistic merit of this much unsung work.

If Shostakovich’s reputation as one of the great masters of the symphony stands in spite of his less favored Second and Third Symphonies, Beethoven’s stature rests most particularly on his epochal Ninth Symphony. In this fascinating pairing of works tonight, the listener has the rare opportunity to compare two so different works that ostensibly praise the same blessings: freedom and fellowship.

Against a political backdrop of repression following the collapse of the Napoleonic empire and the reestablishment of monarchies in Europe, Beethoven revisited in 1821-24 an old plan to set Friedrich von Schiller’s Ode to Joy. But as Beethoven scholar Lewis Lockwood writes, the composer decided “not to present it as a solo song to be heard in the private salons of music lovers but as an anthem that could be performed on the grandest possible scale in the concert hall, the most public of settings.” It would be the centerpiece of a massive symphony “that would convey the poet’s utopian vision of human brotherhood as a statement of support for the principles of democracy at a time when direct political action on behalf of such principles was difficult and dangerous. It enabled him to realize in his way what Shelley meant when he called poets the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world.’”

Now, that’s speaking truth to power…

Date: February 12, 2014 - 8:00:PM
Price: Free
Location: NEC’s Jordan Hall

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MUSIC IS THE SILENCE BETWEEN THE NOTES. CLAUDE DEBUSSY