Delving into Dmitri
A preview by Marc Shulgold
Barbara Hamilton and her Colorado Chamber Players have titled their two-year survey of Dmitri Shostakovich’s chamber music a “Celebration.” That’s appropriate – sort of.
While the music world has come to celebrate the Russian composer’s work, the man’s life (1906-75) was anything but a celebration.
“He walked a political tightrope,” Hamilton observed. Indeed, living and working under the oppressive rule of Joseph Stalin, every creative person in that beleaguered, war-torn country had to be careful not to offend the bizarre, narrow-minded tastes of the ruling bureaucracy. Shostakovich in particular suffered greatly under Stalin and his successors.
Music-lovers now know and admire the composer mostly through his 15 Symphonies and an equal number of String Quartets. But, as Hamilton pointed out, there’s a significant difference between those two collections.
“The Symphonies were written in line with the Soviet government,” she said. “They were intended to keep the masses happy and under (Stalin’s) control. But the chamber music is more personal. Those works, especially his 15 string quartets, expressed what was in his heart and soul. It seems that Shostakovich had to sell his soul sometimes, just to survive. His music had a public and private face.” She added that many of the chamber pieces remained unpublished until after Stalin’s death in 1953.
More than a half-century later, it’s clear that the greatness of Shostakovich has survived. All that remains in our memories of Stalin is his brutality.
And so, CCP’s collaborative series will celebrate the victory of great art over murderous intimidation. Audiences attending the group’s concerts – as well as those by the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra, Friends of Chamber Music and other groups – will find an opportunity to discover and understand some of Shostakovich’s intimate masterpieces.
He won’t be the only composer represented, Hamilton noted. “We’ll be including some pieces by Prokofiev, focusing on music that’s most representative of his style while he was in the West.” Though both composers were acquaintances, and each became famous, their lives followed starkly different directions. While Shostakovich spent the majority of his life in Russia, Prokofiev lived, traveled and concertized for 20 years in Europe and America, an exile that began in 1918, shortly after the Russian Revolution.
By bringing Prokofiev (and some other Russian composers) into the series, Hamilton and CCP hope to broaden our sense of Shostakovich’s life and work. “We’ll put each piece in context, and we’ll be doing some musical demonstrations,” she said. For example, Hamilton will explain the connection some of the Quartets had to certain people. In May, CCP will perform Quartets No. 4, 7 and 11 – each dedicated to artists who had died. Next season will include a program titled “Musical Signatures,” which explores the composer’s secret self-identification in his D-S-C-H motif (using the German names for the notes D-E flat-C-B).
Focusing on the life and music of a single composer has become an intriguing theme for Hamilton and her ensemble. “We had a great time doing the Haydn (Quartet) Slam last year,” she said. “So we looked for another composer who’s compelling. We get excited delving into composers – exploring their psyches, discovering who they were.”
That said, all this intense music of the 20th Century may be off-putting to concert-goers. But Hamilton feels the opposite. “We’re not concerned about losing audiences,” she insisted. “Look at the young people I’ve been working with at the Denver School of the Arts. They’ve been learning the 3rd Quartet, and they’re head over heels in love with it.”
The Colorado Chamber Players and pianist Andrew Cooperstock will perform Shostakovich’s Elegy and Polka, String Quartet No.1 and Piano Quintet at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, November 14 in first Universalist Church of Denver, 4101 E. Hampden Ave.
At 2 p.m. on Sunday, November 15, students from the Denver School of the Arts will appear in a multi-disciplinary program at the Thornton Senior Center, 9471 Dorothy Blvd. (works of Mozart, Beethoven, O’Connor and Telemann)
CCP will appear at the Longmont Museum & Cultural Center, 400 Quail Rd., at 2:30 p.m. on Friday, November 20. Call (303) 678-7869 for information.
A program titled “Different Worlds: Shostakovich and Prokofiev” will be presented at 7 p.m. Thursday, December 3 in Cameron Church, 1600 S. Pearl St. (Prokofiev Wind-String Quintet op.39, string quartets by Shostakovich)
Information on CCP events: ColoradoChamberPlayers.org or (303) 355-2224.