The Seattle Symphony performs Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, as well as the North American premiere of Symphony No. 8 by Valentin Silvestrov — a composer who was active in the Ukrainian revolution of 2014 and has been a strong critic of Vladimir Putin.
Although nobody expects protests at Seattle Symphony’s historic performance of Valentin Silvestrov’s Symphony No. 8 this week, its scheduled world premiere sparked significant dissent — from the composer.
Initially scheduled for a Moscow premiere in November 2014, Silvestrov got his way when it was moved to Kiev, Ukraine, where it was performed in May of 2015.
This was no surprise, given Silvestrov’s history. Now 78, he has long opposed the dictates of authoritarian governments. Expelled from the Ukrainian Union of Composers for two years in the early 1970s, he briefly withdrew from the spotlight rather than conform to the state-imposed confines of “Socialist realism.”
Seattle Symphony Orchestra: Dvorak, Liadov and Silvestrov
With Mikhail Tatarnikov conducting. 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Saturday (April 14-16); Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $39-$124 (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org).
Just two years ago, the composer literally wrapped himself in a Ukrainian flag at a memorial held during the Ukrainian revolution of 2014. He also wrote two memorial works for the first protester killed during the shooting on Jan. 22 of that year, publicly called Vladimir Putin “simply insane” and decried the political face of Russia as “entirely covered in excrement.”
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No trace of anger, however, will come to the surface in Seattle during the North American premiere of the symphony — its second airing anywhere — which will be conducted by Mikhail Tatarnikov, music director of the Mikhailovsky Theatre St. Petersburg. Symphony No. 8 is an extended meditation of sorts. Its drawn-out, somewhat depressive surface is punctuated by a lovely lyrical figure that, in both melody and manner, hearkens back to the song of the forest bird in Wagner’s “Siegfried,” the third opera in the “Ring” cycle.
“The symphony creates a sense of space that you can explore as a listener,” said Peter J. Schmelz, a Silvestrov expert who edits The Journal of Musicology and teaches at Arizona State University. (Schmelz will also deliver preconcert lectures an hour before each performance.)
“It’s both a cosmic sense of space, as though you’re in outer space,” Schmelz explained, “and also the sense of the pastoral, like you’re out in some kind of idyllic landscape.”
Silvestrov, Schmelz said, has argued that people are looking for some kind of spiritual anchor these days — and that Symphony No. 8 attempts to provide one. In a 1991 letter to Russian musicologist Marina Nest’yeva, Silvestrov wrote that great music should leave its listeners feeling “simply blessed, that is, for an instant we find the wings that had been taken away from us.”
“He has stated that the old, monumental symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler were like rainstorms where you could hear the thunder,” Schmelz said. “In this symphony, which is intentionally devoid of ongoing drama, all you hear are the disturbing echoes of the thunder at the beginning of the work. But there’s always an edge to his symphonies, and a sense of other things going on in the distance or below the surface — the menace on the horizon that is represented by the thunder.”
The melodies that break through the symphony’s often-murky surface from time to time are meant to provide consolation — Schmelz calls them a “sonic shelter in which people can take refuge as everything around them is going crazy.” Listeners would be wise to bask in these moments, then surrender to a composition whose emotional and spiritual language is far less colorful than the themes and variations of a composer such as Beethoven.
No consolation will be necessary, however, for either of the headliners on the program: Dvorak’s deeply moving Cello Concerto, with Tchaikovsky International Competition Gold Medalist Narek Hakhnazaryan as soloist, and Anatoly Liadov’s “The Enchanted Lake.”
The latter’s magical landscape conjures a fantasy world quite different from the grim realities that birthed Silvestrov’s fascinating Symphony No. 8.