Babi Yar 75th Anniversary Commemorative Concert

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Published: 19th September, 2017

On Sunday 17 September 2017 at 2pm, Melbourne’s Hamer Hall was the venue for a landmark event for the Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra: the Babi Yar 75th Anniversary Commemorative Concert….

In September, 1941 around 30,000 Ukrainian Jews assembled. They had been told to dress warmly, bring their valuables and congregate at Babi Yar, on the outskirts of Kiev.

Expecting to be transported to resettlement somewhere, instead they were stripped of clothes and valuables, mown down by gunfire, and thrown into the ravine, dead or half dead. The murders at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators continued for days. In the following months, thousands more Jews, together with some Gypsies, Communists and Soviet prisoners of war were murdered there – a total estimated to be more than 100,000.

The poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, produced his poem Babi Yar in 1961, after visiting the site, and seeing that after 20 years, there was no memorial to the people slaughtered in these atrocities. His poem was immediately attacked and banned, and was not officially published again until 1984. The history of the events had not been acknowledged by the Soviets, who had denied the existence of anti-Semitism.

When Shostakovich read the poem, it accorded with his own abhorrence of anti-Semitism and his strong view that such events must be constant reminders of such inhumanity. He set the poem to music in 1962, and together with four additional poems evocative of Soviet life, it became his 13th Symphony.

Adrian Tamburini, a bass-baritone – an opera and concert soloist nationally – had a gap in his schedule, and was looking for a substantial project. A friend introduced him to the work, and he set about finding a way to perform it.

This became a major project for Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra, its Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Mark Shiell, and the orchestra’s committee. Partners and benefactors were found, and a whole program organised.

The Zelman Symphony is the longest-running community orchestra in Melbourne, and celebrated its 80th Anniversary in 2013-14 with performances of Mahler’s 8th (“Symphony of a Thousand”), and a concert of Russian Favourites at the Myer Music Bowl as a curtain-raiser to an MSO performance. A “community orchestra”, the Zelman enjoys the support of professional and retired musicians and music teachers, in addition to “amateurs” in the very best sense of the word.

The first half of Sunday’s substantial program began with the premiere performance of Crossway for Orchestra, by Harry Sdraulig, commissioned by the Zelman Symphony for this event. A work in four movements, it takes us on a journey from misguided optimism to yearning for tranquillity, through uncomfortable energetic hostility, to brokenness, and finally to hope. Influenced by his connection to war through Polish grandparents, Sdraulig’s work is contemporary but tonal, and uses orchestral colour and changing rhythmic devices to expressive effect. The orchestra handled these aspects very capably, and highlights included a very expressive violin solo (Wilma Smith), some exciting brass and percussion, and an oboe solo calling as though a human voice, leading the way from darkness towards hope, where we heard long sections of unison playing in the orchestral parts, a gesture to unity. The composer was acknowledged warmly as he entered the stage from the stalls where he had been listening along with a large audience.

Zelman Symphony deserves high praise indeed for their commissioning of new works, and Elena Kats-Chernin’s Flute Concerto “Night and Now” (commissioned by flautist Sally Walker with their assistance in 2014, and first performed in Melbourne in 2015). It was reprised on Sunday, with Sally Walker again the soloist. With Russian character and imagined Russian fairy tales as her starting point, the work complemented the afternoon’s program. Once again the orchestration gives wonderful “highlight” moments to orchestral sections, and again they rose to the occasion with character-filled solos and ensembles, including a charming interchange between the solo flautist and the orchestral flute. Sally Walker’s commanding solo presence was evident throughout, in partnership with conductor Shiell and the orchestra, and was greeted with an enthusiastic audience reception. Elena Kats-Chernin was also warmly received. We were rewarded when she sat at the piano, and with Walker performed a charming piano/flute version of Wild Swans as an encore.

The main event came after the interval. A formal Babi Yar Commemoration took place first, with Adrian Tamburini as MC. A short address by Alec Ryvchin, Director of Public Affairs Executive Council of Australian Jewry recounted the history, and the presence in the audience of the only known survivor of the massacre in Australia was noted. Yevtushenko’s poem was read evocatively in English by Brendan Zlatkis, and Maurice Ravel’s setting from Deux Mélodies Hébraïques of “Kaddish”, the Jewish Prayer for Mourning, was sung superbly by bass Alex Pokryshevsky, accompanied by Renata Iskhakbaev.

And now began the main event – a performance of Symphony No. 13. Dmitri Shostakovich had thought first to set only the Babi Yar poem, but soon realised that it was to be only the first movement of a much larger work. He selected four more of Yevtushenko’s poems on various aspects of Russian history, attitudes and culture. He chose to use bass solo and male voice chorus. The texts throughout the work are clearly audible, due in part to the choice of accompanying orchestration, but perhaps more so to the mostly syllabic unison setting of the words, and use of many repeated pitches, and mostly stepwise movement. This use of text as sung speech is very powerful, like a Greek chorus often commenting on the action or taking the role of the crowd. A few musical themes generate much of the musical material in the whole piece, and musicologists find some connection with Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov ideas, the most readily audible being the use of the bells.

The powerful Babi Yar movement is structured by the poem, combining solo, chorus and orchestral sections to illustrate the poem’s reference to past and present times. Shostakovich takes us on the difficult journey using all the available resources.

The second movement “Humour” masquerades as a scherzo, where chorus and soloist sing of putting Humour to death. Typical of Shostakovich is the mock-military orchestral treatment when the soldiers are marching. “In the Store” is the third movement, the place of women tenderly expressed musically, along with the shame of cheating these “women of Russia”. “They have endured everything.” The fourth movement discusses how “Fears are dying out in Russia”, but also reveals a concern that the new order (Khrushchev’s regime) brings with it new fears. The last movement “Career” is a tribute to those who are remembered for accomplishments long after they were originally pilloried for them. (Galileo, Pasteur, Newton, Shakespeare, Tolstoy….)

The chorus, (a group including individual professional singers – including my husband, members of Melbourne Capella, Southern Voices Youth Chorale and Xavier College Senior Singers), under the direction of chorus master Nicholas Cowall, made a significant contribution to the success of the Symphony. Diction was excellent, and the dramatic effect of the mostly unison voices was powerful. The one moment of harmony concluded the 2nd movement celebrating the women, where a very unexpected plagal cadence with a resounding bottom C lent a religious importance to these pious weary women.

Soloist Adrian Tamburini was a remarkably calm presence, given his pivotal role in the entire concert. His performance was excellent. His voice has a wonderful mellifluous tone, and his musicianship allowed the speech-like rhythms to flow, while more lyrical and expansive longer phrases were given the space to have impact.

Artistic director Mark Shiell conducted, and Wilma Smith, beloved former Concertmaster of the MSO was Guest Concertmaster for Sunday’s performance. Sitting beside her was the regular Zelman Concertmaster, Susan Pierotti, remembered for her many years in front desks at Orchestra Victoria. This orchestral leadership team deserves credit for moulding the orchestra together for a most demanding program.

Apart from consistently competent orchestral playing, special orchestral moments in the Symphony abounded – the numerous wind section unisons and octaves, some special bass clarinet and bassoon moments, the extended tuba solo, the long tricky string pizzicato section, playful brass and percussion interjections, the flute duet in 6ths, the beautiful muted violin/viola duet – to name but a few.

This was much more than an ordinary Sunday afternoon concert by a community orchestra. If you didn’t already know the true story of Babi Yar, I encourage you to read more, and particularly to read the poems of Yevtushenko, and listen to Shostakovich’s portrayal.