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Festival of Ideas Aims To Contextualize Composers’ Work

photo by: Alan Olson

Wheeling Symphony Orchestra musical director John Devlin speaks on Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s life and work Monday at Wheeling Park High School.

Though classical music and opera may seem removed from modern mentality, the Festival of Ideas aims to bring the performances to life with a modern understanding of the work, and the lives of those who write them.

Panelists discussed the lives of composers Dmitri Shostakovich, Florence Price and Richard Wagner at a discussion Monday morning at Wheeling Park High School, where Park and John Marshall High School juniors were bused in to attend.

Wheeling Symphony Orchestra musical director John Devlin, Rabbi Joshua Lief of Temple Shalom, YWCA Wheeling program director Ron Scott Jr. and assistant conductor Antoine Clark, spoke on the lives of the composers, from the discrimination Price faced as a Black woman in early 20th century America, to Shostakovich’s persecution by Josef Stalin’s government, to the shadow Wagner’s work would cast over German identity after its eventual association with the Nazis.

The goal was to draw a cross-section between the personal lives and experiences of the composers and the social climate of the modern era, according to Wheeling Symphony Orchestra Executive Director Bryan Braunlich.

“(It’s about) shedding a light around what it means for their lives, in relation to the social-political happenings of the time,” Braunlich said.

Price, born in Arkansas in 1887, was a musical prodigy with degrees in organ performance and another in piano pedagogy, whose career faced difficulty due to racism and sexism in her life, though her work has seen a revival in recent years. Scott, who admitted his musical tastes lie more in hip hop and R&B than classical symphonies, told the assembled students that Price’s struggles still resonate with him.

“When you first walk in, when you first get introduced, you begin to categorize how different it all is from you – ‘How could I possibly relate to classical music?’ She’s female, she’s Black, all these things that make it too different,” he said. “If you remove those things and boil it all down, you simply have a human being who perseveres and has drive and continues to excel.

“Though the things she had to persevere over are … things like lynch mobs, like being so light-complexioned she could pass as another race, those are things I can’t personally relate to. But I can relate to the things like not being believed in by people who are supposed to love you, having peers question or judge the things you’re passionate about, having someone look you in the face and tell you that you can’t do something your heart is bound to do – these are the things that let you relate to this music much more than just having a piano being played for you.”

Lief took the opposite approach, urging the students to look around the room and recognize the differences between people who nonetheless come together to participate in a unified society, in contrast to the homogenous society the Nazis sought, using Wagner’s music as an ideal. Lief pushed further, contrasting the “impossible genius” of Wagner’s work as a composer with the impossible society his work was used to push, and calls on listeners to grapple with the beauty of Wagner’s music with the grotesqueness of his ideals.

“Those views of the world should make us uncomfortable living today, it should make us feel disconnected. It should give us trouble with Wagner,” Lief said. “If we want to enjoy the beauty of the music itself, we have to wrestle with the person who wrote it, and the vision of the world he was trying to present. If that gives us the opportunity to talk about it, and reflect upon it, then that is worth it.”

Devlin, who is a Shostakovich scholar, recounted the composer’s work as rebelling against the demand for “patriotic” music, derived from Russian folk songs and for music with militaristic themes. Faced with tightening restrictions on what constitutes acceptable music, Shostakovich turned to opera, which allowed greater freedom of expression of his opinions satirizing the state police service in ‘The Nose,’ and ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,’ which was harshly criticized in state media in an article sometimes attributed to Stalin, and which was banned in Russia for decades.

“Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony, which is just about to be premiered, is pulled from the stands of the musicians as they’re rehearsing it to give it their first life,” Devlin said. “Instead, because he knew it was dangerous to premier the 4th Symphony in the state that it was at the time, he wrote the 5th Symphony, which is the piece that we will perform on Friday.

“The 5th Symphony, Shostakovich knows, is a life-or-death moment for him as a person, and for his artistic career. He titles this symphony ‘A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism.’ … He is doing this to make sure that Stalin allows the premiere to happen, and the piece is incredibly powerful. The first movement, out of the four, is a harrowing picture of what Soviet artistic life was like at the time.”

The Music as History from East to West event will be performed Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Capitol Theatre. The event is free for the students who attended the panel, with a discount for accompanying adults. The symphony will perform Price’s Concert Overture no. 2, Wagner’s Der Fliegende Höllander (Flying Dutchman) Overture, and Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5.

— This is an alternate quote that could go under Lief’s bit. Wasn’t sure which I liked better, so your call. —

“The question for us living today is, Wagner’s music is impossibly beautiful – which it is, musically – but the person who wrote it and the themes it espouses are impossible because that society doesn’t exist,” Lief said. “He writes of German mythos coming to life on the stage, a perfect world where everything is as it should be.

“But that isn’t the reality. The real world is diverse, the real world is muddled, the real world is chaotic, and so Wagner’s music is either a tonic that helps us get back to a dreamed vision of what the would could be ‘if only the world was pure and homogenous, or Wagner is an opportunity for us to reflect on a world that is actually diverse, and in fact has many variations, and which some argue that diversity makes us richer and stronger in the process.”


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