Russians re-liberated

Times Staff Writer

Esa-Pekka Salonen picked up a microphone just before beginning the second half of his Los Angeles Philharmonic program dealing with Stalin’s noxious specter on Soviet music. “You’ve probably noticed by now,” he said to the audience at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday night, “that this is music by three young, wild guys.”

Yes, and angry and aggressive and noisy and wacky guys. And libidinous. And, at least in the case of Shostakovich, out to get noticed and in trouble, which he did.

As part of the orchestra’s ongoing “Shadow of Stalin” series, the program focused on the brief period of experimentation in Russian art in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. But a lewd sex scene in Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” which ended Friday’s concert, pushed Stalin too far, and in 1936, the dictator began his vicious crackdown on artists.

Shostakovich never dared attempt another work for the stage -- opera or ballet -- although he wrote, in a permanently freaked-out state, his most popular symphonic and chamber music over the next four decades. Gavriil Popov and Alexander Mosolov, however, became shadows of themselves under Stalin’s shadow, and are now obscure figures in music history.


Popov’s plight was a great loss for music. His first symphony, written in 1934 when he was 31, was perhaps the most promising first symphony of any Russian composer until Schnittke came along. Salonen began his program with a true rarity, Popov’s Symphonic Suite No. 1, from his score to a 1932 documentary film, “Komsomol: Patron of Electrification.”

The film is worth reviving if for no other reason than its extraordinary music. It begins weirdly with a theremin wailing along with a wordless song for a soprano and baritone. The young composer did not yet have a voice, and Stravinsky, Scriabin and Schoenberg keep popping up in his early work. But Popov was cosmopolitan with flair.

Mosolov’s remarkable “The Iron Foundry,” a few minutes of symphonic music made to sound mechanical, is the only work for which he is remembered. It was a sensation in its time. The Philharmonic performed it at the Hollywood Bowl in 1931, four years after its Russian premiere. The piece still sounds more modern than 99% of the music the orchestra plays today in summer.

Salonen’s clean, musical performance was, I thought, a revelation, with its mechanical lines interlocking excitingly like constructivist proto-Minimalism. A piece relegated by history to a cubicle in the section on musical gimmickry proved a lot more.


Shostakovich was represented by excerpts from his two operas, which contained some of his most daring music. “The Nose,” written in 1928, is music by a 22-year-old on a nose-thumbing tear. The opera is seldom encountered today. Shostakovich’s hysterical use of Modernism allied to Gogol’s story about a civil servant whose nose has a mind of its own is most interesting as an example of where the composer might have been headed. Maybe toward madness.

“The Nose’s” most inventive music is in the suite from the opera, which Salonen conducted with what sounded like gleeful recognition. Like Shostakovich, he too was once a precocious, irrepressible musical rebel.

Shostakovich pushed the dramatic envelope further still four years later in “Lady Macbeth,” about a repressed young woman’s sexual and social liberation that involves murder. She murders to gain freedom and is eventually crushed by the system, which means the opera had a lot to say for its time.

Salonen chose the orgasmic Act I sex scene, with its famous trombone anticlimax, to conclude the concert. The performance was extraordinary. All evening the orchestra played with fervor and focus. Here, with the brass in the organ loft, whooping it up from on high, the Philharmonic sounded on fire.

Tatiana Pavlovskaya was the evening’s soprano in the Popov and was Katerina in “Lady Macbeth.” Her appearances last season with the Philharmonic in Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony and this season with L.A. Opera in Zemlinsky’s “A Florentine Tragedy” revealed a major singer. Dusky-toned, dramatically riveting and powerful, her Katerina proved her one of the most musically and dramatically scorching singers around.

The evening’s other soloists included a compelling baritone, Vladislav Sulimsky, in the Popov suite and Shostakovich’s “The Nose.” Tenor Michael Hendrick adequately replaced Vladimir Grishko. Benjamin von Atrops had a very small part, as Boris, in the “Lady Macbeth” scene.

A “Casual Fridays” concert had the orchestra and audience dressed as they liked. I wonder, though, if the music might not have seemed even more shocking had the setting been more formal. These were composers who suffered greatly for doing what they liked.