Symphony event proper substitute for 2nd-day Pesach

Posted on 28 April 2016 by admin

Last Sunday, second-day Pesach, I didn’t attend synagogue services. Instead, I went to the Winspear to hear the Dallas Opera Orchestra peform Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony, Babi Yar.
Among the earliest, and still most horrendous, of Holocaust atrocities, Babi Yar happened in 1941, almost immediately after Hitler’s army marched into Ukraine. All Kiev’s Jews were ordered to report to this “old woman’s ravine” with their best belongings for promised resettlement.
There, over two days in late September, the Nazis assembled some 34,000 men, women and children, stripped them of all their possessions, including their clothing, and systematically shot them, letting their naked bodies fall into that deep pit in layer after layer of destroyed humanity. (I suspect it may have been Babi Yar that taught the Germans how difficult and expensive it was to carry out mass executions with bullets, “inspiring” them to invent other, more efficient and less costly ways of doing away with our people. But that’s a digression here…)
Twenty years later, the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote his well-known, not-so-subtle recalling of Babi Yar’s after-the-fact effect on him. He had been only 8 years old when the massacre happened; by 1961, Stalin was eight years dead but repression lived on, and this master poem was a young man’s cry for his country to end anti-Semitism and find again all the values it had somehow managed to lose.
Dmitri Shostakovich was not a young man when he read Yevtushenko’s poem. Already over 50, he had capitulated much in the past to his government’s demands in order to further his musical career, but he could not ignore Babi Yar and the outspoken bravery of its author. Yevtushenko was shocked when the composer called, asking permission to set his poem to music. And when Shostakovich learned that there were other poems by the same writer making targeted soft spots of some of Russian life’s hardest realities, he extended his original idea into a five-part, full-length concert piece. He wrote quickly, and by late the next year had completed Babi Yar – not so much a traditional symphony as a series of musical responses to a quintet of very personal writings by a single man – all different, but all centered on that one man’s poetically-expressed criticisms of the failings of his beloved country.
The symphony is called Babi Yar, but after its first section come Humor, In the Store, Fears, and Careers. The words to each are Yevtushenko’s poetic descriptions of Soviet life. And they are indeed “out-spoken,” because Shostakovich’s No. 13 calls for full vocal chorus as well as orchestra, with the voices singing the full text of each poem in Russian! So Sunday, I also heard the Dallas Opera Chorus at its finest.
The symphony premiered in mid-December 1962. The composer’s prestige assured its Moscow booking, but there was real concern that there would be governmental censure after its first performance, so the original conductor bailed; Kiril Kondrashin should be most remembered for bravely stepping in with his baton. And Yevtushenko himself pleaded — luckily, with success — to keep the frightened singers from walking out at the very last minute. I learned Sunday that this premiere was received with bursts of applause after every section — defying an audience’s symphonic “no-no” — and at the end, a long moment of silence, followed by a wild ovation.
And the poet was there himself! Yevtushenko is now a slim, stooped, gaunt old man, leaning on a cane and holding someone’s arm as he entered for a pre-concert opera talk. But his dress was wildly unconventional — truly “poetic!” — and he read Babi Yar aloud in a full, expressive voice. At concert’s end, there was tremendous applause when the spotlight showed him, first balcony front-and-center, proudly beaming.
Somehow, I’m sure God has accepted my attendance at this event as proper substitute for the usual second-day Passover worship service. (Oh – I forget to mention: neither Yevtushenko nor Shostakovich is/was Jewish…)

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