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A Symphonic Memorial to Babi Yar

Two works, forged in the fires of war and oppression, will be presented by the AT&T Performing Arts Center later this month. The General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera explains the thought process behind this unique pairing.

published Sunday, April 3, 2016



Dallas — On Sunday, April 24 at 2 p.m., The Dallas Opera will present a special performance of Shostakovich’s 13th symphony, as part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s “Classical Criterion” series. It is an honor to be presenting The Dallas Opera Orchestra and Chorus on this prestigious series, conducted by TDO’s Music Director, Emmanuel Villaume. We follow other extraordinary performers this season including the Israel Philharmonic, the Youth Orchestra of Colombia, and Evgeny Kissin, and precede Itzhak Perlman and Emmanuel Ax, who will perform in May.

When I was first approached by the Performing Arts Center about featuring TDO on their series, I wanted to create a unique and special program that featured the best that The Dallas Opera has to offer. I selected this relatively rarely performed Shostakovich symphony, subtitled “Babi Yar,” for several reasons. First and foremost, it is a superb musical work, scored for large orchestra, men’s chorus, and bass soloist (sung in this case by Mikhail Kazakov, who excelled as our Boris in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov a few seasons ago). Second, the subtitle “Babi Yar” refers to a ravine in the Ukraine where the Nazis brutally and systematically murdered over 30,000 Jewish people in two days; this tragic massacre occurred in 1941, allowing the concert to memorialize the 75th anniversary of this atrocity. (Sadly, Babi Yar continued to be the site of further executions and murders, until the Nazi retreat in 1944). Third, the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whose poems Shostakovich set to music in 1962 for this five-movement symphony, is still professionally active, and will be coming to Dallas for the performance. More about that later.

This symphony is one of Shostakovich’s most passionate rejections of oppression by the Russian government in the post-war period; intriguingly, the symphony shows his support not only for the Jewish people, but also for hard-working women and mothers, who Shostakovich clearly felt were underappreciated at this time.

The symphony is in five movements, all based on different poems by Yevtushenko.

The first movement, “Babi Yar,” is the musical and emotional departure point for the symphony, in which Shostakovich and Yevtushenko express their opposition to anti-Semitism, not only in the context of World War II, but in other periods in Western history including the Dreyfus Affair. The symphony opens with chilling and evocative orchestration, and the chorus begins soon after with the potent language “There is no memorial above Babi Yar. / The steep ravine is like a rough tombstone. / I’m frightened. I feel as old today / as the Jewish race itself.”  Later in the movement, we hear “Above Babi Yar the wild grass rustles, / the trees look threatening, in judgement. / Here everything silently screams, / and baring my head, I feel / as though I am slowly turning grey.” (For the translations, I have relied on Decca’s excellent recording of Shostakovich’s complete symphonies, conducted by Bernard Haitink, and featuring the Concertgebouw and the London Philharmonic Orchestras).


Photo: WikiMedia Commons
Dmitri Shostakovich

The second movement is titled “Humour.” This section portrays a particularly dark and mordant humor, with incorporation of burlesque themes. Humor is personified as a man, who can neither be bought, nor killed. Even when he is about to be executed, he wriggles out of his coat, and escapes. The opening of the movement sets the tone: “Tsars, kings, emperors, / rulers of all the world, / have commanded parades / but couldn’t command humour.”


The third movement, “In the shop” refers to the hardships experienced by women in Soviet Russia, specifically in their tireless work as both employees and mothers. The opening stanza, describing the arrival of the women at their place of work, has a distinctly T.S. Eliot feel: “Some with shawls, some with scarves, / as though to heroic enterprises or to work, / into the store one by one / the women silently come.”  Yevtushenko also glorifies the role of the mother: “They wait quietly. / their families’ guardian angels, / and they grasp in their hands / their hard-earned money.”

The fourth movement is titled “Fears.” The text describes the passing of certain past fears, but also the emergence of new ones. The movement is clearly autobiographical, reflecting the series of reversals in Shostakovich’s career between political hero and dissident, and his observations of the terrible consequences for other artists who fell out of official favor. In the old world “Fears slithered everywhere, like shadows, / penetrating every floor.” Despite the improvement in his fortunes, Shostakovich, setting Yevtushenko’s text, states “I see new fears dawning:”, which include fears of not being patriotic, excessive boasting, plagiarism, trusting oneself too much, humiliating others with mistrust, and the final fear of “not writing with all my strength.”

The fifth and final movement is titled “Career,” with reference to Shostakovich’s contempt for artists and others who betray the truth in pursuit of their careers. The text in this final movement begins by describing a contemporary of Galileo, who knew the truth about the earth and the sun, but betrayed Galileo to protect his family and advance his career. As the text reads: “They’re forgotten, / those who hurled curses, / but we remember / the ones who were cursed…”

In reading these poems in translation, it is easy to see why Shostakovich was so deeply inspired, drawing on his difficult life, and all of its pinnacles and nadirs, to set Yevtushenko’s poetry to music in a major symphonyespecially when he felt the political climate of the time would be more supportive than it had been in previous (i.e. Stalinist) years.

As a companion piece to this symphony for TDO’s concert, Emmanuel Villaume and I selected Beethoven’s Leonore Overture Number 3. This is one of four versions of the overture for Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio; his very personal statement of the power of womanly love and marital fidelity to overcome obstacles, set against a backdrop of political oppression. Taken together, the Beethoven overture and the Shostakovich symphony complement one another as they reflect on religious and personal freedom, and the fight against governmental overreach and repression.

Before the concert, we will hold a special Joy and Ronald Mankoff Pre-opera Talk at 12:30 p.m. in the McDermott performance chamber of the opera house. For this event, I will lead a panel interview of four distinguished guests: Mr. Yevtushenko himself, the President and CEO of the Dallas Holocaust Museum Mary Pat Higgins, Dallas Opera Music Director Emmanuel Villaume, and TDO’s Ukrainian-born Chorus Master Alexander Rom. Mr. Yevtushenko has also graciously agreed to read some of this poetry—a rare treat.

With the tragic re-emergence of anti-Semitism in Europe, and a sad burgeoning of intolerance in many countries and many forms, we are proud to present one of the great masterpieces of the symphonic literature—an epic work that almost begs us to accept and embrace our fellow human beings, and to cherish each person’s value and contribution to society. We are very grateful to the AT&T Performing Arts Center for their leadership in this classical series, and their invitation to TDO to perform. I hope that you can join us for both the special pre-performance lecture, and this unique and memorable concert. 


◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in Below is a list of previous columns:

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A Symphonic Memorial to Babi Yar
Two works, forged in the fires of war and oppression, will be presented by the AT&T Performing Arts Center later this month. The General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera explains the thought process behind this unique pairing.
by Keith Cerny

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