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Sunday, December 16 , 2018, 4:01 am | Fair 44º


Gerald Carpenter: Slatkin Returns with Bag Full of Music to Conduct Academy Orchestra

The good news is that Leonard Slatkin will conduct the Music Academy Festival Orchestra in concert at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Granada Theatre. There is no bad news.

If I refrain from proclaiming Slatkin the “greatest” American conductor now working — which he may well be — it is because there aren’t really objective standards by which such things can be measured. I will go so far as to say he is my favorite, and leave it at that.

Slatkin has chosen to lead his young virtuosos through three works: Roberto Sierra’s Fandangos, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F-Major, Opus 93 and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D-Minor, Opus 47 (1937).

Sierra’s Fandangos — sensual, brash, lyrical, rhythmic and kind of engagingly weird — was commissioned by Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra, who premiered the work in 2000 in Washington, D.C. We are, therefore, getting this straight from the horse’s mouth.

Beethoven was 19 when the Bastille fell (224 years ago this Sunday), and he was swept up with enthusiasm for the French Revolution and Napoleon — a self-made man like himself — and his enthusiasm lasted until the latter made himself emperor in 1802. Then he turned away in disgust, but he had already made his own revolution by then.

He had barely put a period on the classical age with his Symphony “Eroica” when he began producing “neo-classic” works such as the Symphony No. 4 in Bb-Major and the Symphony No. 8. Although they are not played as often today as the larger-scaled and more emotionally explicit symphonies, they had a great deal of influence on the composers of the next generation — Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann and others.

There is a lot of tension in the Eighth and a kind of subliminal desperation, which I will not attempt to explain. He seems to have anticipated Sergei Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony by about a hundred years.

For most of the 20th century (1922-91), Russia was known as the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” and it was a bleak and often terrifying place to live. Yet, at the blood-soaked crest of Stalin’s first wave of state terror (1936-37), Shostakovich produced the symphony, which has won immortality for his name. He was already out of favor on account of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District — “A criminal ruler?” the composer allegedly said to Solomon Volkov. “Why should that intrest Stalin?” — and he had withdrawn from performance and publication his recently completed Symphony No. 4 in C-Minor (he would not let it be performed until 1962).

But he had to find a way back into the light, because the number of private patrons in the Soviet Union was zero. There was only the State, and if the State didn’t like you, you got bupkis. Clearly, he would have to do some dissembling.

“I can tell a lie,” folk singer Dave Van Ronk said, “but I can’t sing one.” So it was with Shostakovich. He could not lie with his music, like Kabalevsky, but he had no compunction about spreading the steer manure verbally, by the symbolic shovel-full.

In an article published under the composer’s name a few days before the premiere, Shostakovich supposedly styled the work “a Soviet artist’s response to just criticism.” This is surely the most ambivalent act of contrition ever made by a defenceless artist before a homicidal tyrant. Musicologists and Cold Warriors have been arguing about it ever since. Don’t worry about it — and don’t worry about what the symphony does or doesn’t “mean.” Just listen, and believe.

Tickets to the Festival Orchestra concert are $48, $38 and $15. They can be purchased by phone at 805.969.8787 or online by clicking here. Tickets are also available from the Granada box office at 805.899.2222.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The opinions expressed are his own.

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