Shining art from a dark era

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra recently completed its three-week festival entitled “Truth to Power.” The performances are of works written in the 1930s and 1940s and the uniting idea is that though this period of history was fraught with peril “yet in this dark era, Benjamin Britten, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich produced works that stirred nations toward hope and a brighter future.”

Conductor Jaap van Zweden led the CSO in these performances, and he was splendid in one of the early concerts in the festival, which featured the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from “Peter Grimes” by Britten and the Shostakovich Symphony No. 7.

The Sea Interludes, often found on Symphonic programs, are engrossing small pieces in their own right, and don’t need the full opera around them for the listener to appreciate them. “Dawn” was stark and mysterious, with particularly nice texture in the winds. “Sunday Morning” had clockwork complexity, and “Moonlight” was ominous. You could feel the blustery winds in “Storm” with the brass creating a force of nature.

The Passacaglia opened with the softness of cat’s feet giving way to a single plaintive viola melody. The crying dissonances in the strings were rendered superbly and the work concluded with the kind of quietness which brings to mind dissolving fog.

The Shostakovich Seventh Symphony, subtitled “Leningrad,” opened with bold, brash confidence and went from strength to strength, including gorgeous sound from flutist Mathieu Dufour. The Moderato movement was delicately understated, enhancing its power. In the Adagio, van Zweden found all the beauty in the soaring violin lines and then he displayed the muscle of the music. The final movement was relentlessly stuffed with power and force. In all, it was a moving performance.

The festival concludes with four performances of Britten’s Violin Concerto paired with the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5. The CSO and van Zweden will be joined by violinist Simone Lamsma.

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In 1943 two men living under the Nazis completed one-act works of musical theater. One of them died in Auschwitz, the other lived in comfort for almost another 40 years.

Chicago Opera Theater (COT) presented these two pieces in four performances at the Merle Reskin Theater: Viktor Ullmann’s “The Emperor of Atlantis” and Carl Orff’s “The Clever One.”

Ullmann’s “Emperor” was written in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, but never had an audience there. It so enraged the Nazis that the performance was cancelled and the composer shunted to Auschwitz where he died in the autumn of 1944.

“Emperor” is a scathing satire on fascism in which Emperor Überall declares universal war mandating that absolutely no one is to survive. Death takes umbrage, as it encroaches on his sovereign domain and he retaliates by refusing to exercise his power. When Death takes a holiday, no one dies, and the emperor’s war becomes a farce. Death wins the war of nonattrition, the emperor concedes, and life and death continue as before.

“The Clever One” is based on a Grimm’s fairy tale, although it contains no mythical creatures or any magic or supernatural events. A clever maiden solves three riddles of the king who has imprisoned her father. The king marries her but she falls into disfavor when she champions the cause of a poor Donkeyman who has been cheated out of livestock. The proud king dismisses her, but first promises to let her take one thing with her before she leaves. Once again, she outwits him.

“The Emperor of Atlantis” is the better of the two works. It has a more thought-provoking story, is more tightly constructed, and has more fascinating music. However, in this double-bill, it fares rather poorly. COT’s general director Andreas Mitisek directs the piece in a haphazard manner. Many of the characters move about awkwardly and appear less than fully rehearsed. The stage is dwarfed by two large staircases which only serve to frighten the audience into thinking someone is going to tumble down them. Perhaps the best touch is the use of crude wooden stacked beds, clearly suggestive of the cramped quarters of the concentration camps.

“The Clever One” is a jarring companion piece. In spite of the king who enjoys his power and cares not if he screws someone over, the work is jolly and at times rather cute. Mitisek’s work here is splendid, with fascinating intricacies, like a trio of wine bottle jugglers. Even better is his use of three panels placed next to each other on which are projected video backdrops which often start from nothing and grow into scenery. Sometimes a box cutter is used to cut out windows and a character’s head appears, most amusingly used for prison scenes.

Yet Mitisek doesn’t believe you can have too much of a good thing. The first time a tree is slowly created on the paper panels, it is engaging. But when the same thing is reprised, it has become tiresome. The drinking song is loads of fun, but goes on far too long. There is a very clever tennis game, but the sound effect of a racquet hitting the ball becomes irritating because the stunt outlasts its ability to amuse the audience.

The singing is a mixed bag, but there are some excellent performances. Soprano Emily Birsan, an alumna of Lyric’s Ryan Center, does justice to the small role of Bubikopf in “Emperor” where she finds love and not death on the battlefield. And she has a chance to shine as the title character in “The Clever One” singing with sweetness and intensity.

Another Ryan alum, tenor Bernard Holcomb, gives two splendid performances. First, an angular portrayal of Harlequin followed by a heartfelt rendition of the cheated Donkeyman.

Bass-baritone David Govertsen, yet another Ryan alum, is a powerful Death and a very amusing imprisoned father of a clever daughter.

Baritone Andrew Wilkowske is both the Emperor and the King. In the first case, he’s skinny in voice and in character, but his second portrayal finds him convincing. Matthan Ring Black, Paul Corona, and William Dwyer are funny as the Vagabonds in the second work, at one point joined by the Muleman (Christopher Remmel) in a well-sung quartet. Cassidy Smith’s Drummer in “Emperor” is stiff and her evident within-phrase breathing is distracting.

Francesco Milioto conducts a small orchestra which lacked bite in “Emperor” but which had fizz in “The Clever One,” even if the brass was sometimes wobbly.