Remembering the siege

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra opens its new season tonight with a Shostakovich piece inspired by the Nazi assault on Leningrad.

September 20, 2006 10:42
4 minute read.
leningrad world war two

leningrad 298 88. (photo credit: )


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Five days shy of what would have been his 100th birthday, Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich will be honored tonight at the opening concert of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra's 2006-2007 season. Though the centenary of the composer's birth is being marked in performances around the world all year, tonight's concert at the Jerusalem Theater will differ from most in the personal connection between Shostakovich's work and three of the musicians who will perform. At the center of the evening's program, which will be repeated tomorrow at the same venue, is Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, a piece the composer wrote about St. Petersburg, the place of his birth, during the Nazi siege of the city (renamed Leningrad during the Soviet era). Shostakovich's legacy remains controversial - classical music experts continue to debate the degree to which he subverted or supported Stalin and the Soviet regime - but the symphony at the time of its debut was hailed as both a national treasure and hymn against the rapidly advancing Nazi threat. Three JSO musicians performing tonight - violinist Raphael Rivkin, cellist Boris Michanovsky and violist Alexander Tomarinson - were born in Shostakovich's hometown, and grew up hearing stories about the city's nearly 900-day siege, which began just weeks after Germany's surprise June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union and continued until January 27, 1944, a year to the day before the Red Army's liberation of Auschwitz. Shostakovich began writing his famed Seventh Symphony inside Leningrad during the first months of the siege, completing the composition's first three sections before his evacuation from his blockaded hometown. The refusal of Leningrad residents to surrender to Nazi forces, despite the well over two years of mass starvation and death the siege would bring, became an emotional focus in the Soviet account of World War II even before the fighting had ended, and remained much in evidence by the time Rivkin, Michanovsky and Tomarinson were born in the mid-Forties and early Fifties. Rivkin said yesterday he was "thrilled" to be performing Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony in Jerusalem, connecting the piece to his father's wartime service in a special Soviet battalion that fought to preserve the small line of communication that remained open between Leningrad and the rest of the Soviet Union. "I was born in Leningrad and feel lots of connections there," he said. "When [JSO conductor] Leon Botstein chose this work, I was very excited, very happy." Calling the piece "one of the most important of the 20th century," Rivkin said Michanovsky and Tomarinson had also been pleased by Botstein's decision to open the JSO's new season with the Seventh Symphony. Michanovsky's older brother, Rivkin said, had been working in a Leningrad tank factory when the siege began, and was later conscripted as a "volunteer" in Stalin's army. A brother of Tomarinson's, meanwhile, worked in a city artillery factory before his transfer to Kuybishev, the town where Shostakovich would ultimately complete his Seventh Symphony. Also on the schedule for tonight and tomorrow's concerts is Shostakovich's "Jewish Folk Poetry," a song cycle for voice and orchestra the composer completed in 1948. Less than a decade after his triumph with the Seventh Symphony, Shostakovich had fallen out of favor by the late Forties with the Stalinist regime, whose growing anti-Semitism also made a public performance of the piece impossible. Shostakovich would outlive the second Soviet dictator, however, and participated in the song cycle's debut in early 1955. "Jewish Folk Poetry," according to JSO bassoonist Richard Paley, is evidence of Shostakovich's historical role as a Russian "philo-Semite." The composer put the song cycle's 11 sections to music clandestinely, Paley said, adding that Shostakovich "did it out of his love for Judaism - lots of his colleagues were Jewish, and this is why he did it." Roughly half the JSO's musicians were born in the Soviet Union, and Rivkin and Paley both said Shostakovich's works had a special poignance for members of the orchestra. Botstein, Paley said, has written about Jewish art and culture before the Second World War, and speaks Russian with Soviet-born orchestra members. The JSO's opening program "represents the angst and pain of the Russian people, and the Jewish people in particular," with a significant number of Jewish residents among the 600,000 to one million people estimated to have died during the siege. Despite his warm feelings for Leningrad and Shostakovich's symphony in its honor, Rivkin said he hadn't been back to his hometown since arriving in Israel in 1981, nor does he have plans to return. "On the one hand," he said, "I want to go, and on the other it's just not the same country anymore." But regardless of any personal ties they may have to Leningrad's history, many of the JSO's performers will feel a special connection to the music they'll perform tonight. "Whenever you play a major work that comes out of Russia, particularly Shostakovich, who was alive during the period when many of the players in the orchestra were in Russia, it has a special significance," Paley said. "Any time we play Shostakovich they feel it deeply. [They] understand the pain of the period."

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