Theodore Kuchar Leads Symphonicity
Guest Violinist Solomiya Ivakhiv
Sandler Center, May 7, 2017
Review by John Campbell
The fifth and last conductor in Symphonicity's “Quest for the Best” concert season was Theodore Kuchar, who led the orchestra in a program titled Epic Revolutionaries with music by Mexican composer Arturo Márquez (b. 1950), Dvořák and Shostakovich. We were immediately swept into Maestro Kuchar's high energy. He had hardly reached the podium when he gave the downbeat for the Star Spangled Banner.
What is most striking about the five concerts this season as Symphonicity picks a new music director is how superbly the players of the orchestra have met each challenge of repertory and an unfamiliar conductor. These are the people who are dedicated to having an all-volunteer community orchestra. The search began two years ago with 74 applicants from four continents and will conclude when the choice is announced in June.
Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez came first. This exciting music was inspired by the composer's visit to a ballroom in Veracruz. Márquez, the son of a Mariachi musician and godson of a Mexican folksinger, came to Los Angeles as a teenager and began composing at 16. He played trombone in his California high school, took piano lessons and attended the Mexican Music Conservatory and received his M.A. from California Institute of the Arts. His music offered sad melodies, nostalgic dance tunes with wild, intense percussion and a smoldering sensuality. Calm sections were followed by bursts of jazzy brass. The music was always viscerally engaging, sometimes with mysterious energy that led to a dramatic conclusion.
Turning to Europe, we heard Violin Concerto in A minor by Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904), in three movements. Solomiya Ivakhiv's violin was featured in music that overflows with lyrical melodies. Inspired by folk melodies and rhythms, there is an improvisatory and rhapsodic flavor to the soloist's virtuosic passages. The revolutionary aspect of the piece by this Czech was its freer, more imaginative approach to form which disturbed contemporary German sensibilities. The solo was excellent and fit seamlessly into the orchestral tapestry of sound. After the violin concerto Ms. Ivakhiv returned to the stage and delighted the audience with Astor Piazzolla's Tango Etude No. 4.
After intermission Maestro Kuchar thanked retired, founding conductor David Kunkel (who was in the audience) for laying the groundwork for the musicians to be able to play the Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad,” so very well. It is a revolutionary piece because it was partially written while the composer lived in Leningrad when the Germans were beginning their deadly siege in 1941. He finished the enormous first movement in six weeks and completed the second and third movements in three weeks. The morale-boost of the Soviet Union's greatest living composer working on the symphony created world-wide excitement. By October Shostakovich agreed to be evacuated to Kuybyshev in the Volga region to complete the four movements.
After the score was completed it was put on microfilm and smuggled to Tehran and sent by U.S. Naval ship to the U.S. On July 19, 1942, 20 million people heard the radio performance conducted by Toscanini leading the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The premier performance was in Kuybyshev in March 1942, before it made its way around the world. Three weeks later it was broadcast by an array of loudspeakers into the no man's land outside Leningrad to taunt Nazi generals.
The four-movement 7th Symphony is an enormous piece—70 minutes— for a gargantuan orchestra. The opening is almost 30 minutes and begins with enticing, dreamlike serenity to bring you into his world, though the violins sometimes have a hysterical edge. Soon, marching drums become an unrelenting, threatening force but a little violin tune tries to break through. Flutes and oboes are answered by the bassoons but the drumming never pauses, growing louder and pulling ominously forward. More ordinary music is overtaken by a raging wave of powerful percussion. Soon it all seems to unravel into competing blocks of sound with the whole orchestra engaged.
The second movement offers memories of a lighter, but sad time but the angry, bitter force intrudes. The harps, making their first appearance attempt to console, the flutes seem above the fray and the bass clarinet offers a bleak melody. There is an emptiness in the heart of the movement, filled once again by the drums marching in with a vengeance. It ends quietly.
Once again, in the third movement, the harp briefly tries to soothe the harsh, violin edge. Plucked cello strings set the stage for the flute's chamber-like, wispy solo. It is warmly inviting consolation for the earlier trauma. Now strings enter with Mahler-like sweetness. Ripping brass challenges but low strings and plucked violins offer an opening of hope.
It ends with joy—a richness of deep strings, wooing woodwinds and harp. It is frolicsome in mood in an all-out gallop for the whole orchestra. There is hope for humanity after all as the earlier pain and tragedy fades away. This was a message that the war torn world was eager to hear.
Years later, Shostakovich is quoted as saying “I have nothing against calling the 7th the Leningrad, but it's not about Leningrad under siege. It's about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished.” Since then St. Petersburg has reclaimed its name but tyrants still enslave their fellow humans whenever possible.