Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, March 14 and 15th, Maestro Kelley Kuo will conduct the Reno Chamber Orchestra in what promises to be a thrilling concert. He is a native of Oregon and a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music. He is an alumnus of the Houston Grand Opera Studio. He counts among his many credits engagements with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Cincinnati Opera, Kentucky Opera, Lyric Opera of San Diego and many, many more. He is currently Artistic Director of the Oregon Mozart Players. He has served on the conducting staff of the Los Angeles Opera, Santa Fe Opera, and Opera pacific.
His upcoming concert in Reno includes Artemis by Kevin Lau, Cello Concerto #1 by Dmitri Shostakovich, and Symphony #2 by Ludwig van Beethoven. Bion Tsang is the soloist for the Cello Concerto.
Here is composer Kevin Lau talking about his “Artemis” taken from his program notes:
“Over the shadowy hills and wind-blown peaks of the mountains, she leads the hunt, delighting in drawing her bow, all of gold, and shooting her deadly shafts. The hilltops are shaken by terror, and the dark of the woods resounds with the terrified screaming of beasts; the earth and the fish-laden ocean tremble in fear at her coming. She roves over all, fearless-hearted, slaying all races of creatures. But when the huntress, delighter in arrows, has sated her longing, rejoicing in heart, she loosens the string of her well-curved bow, and returns to the mighty palace of Phoebus Apollo, her brother, in the fertile country of Delphi, to join with the Muses and Graces in treading the maze of the dance…”
Such is Homer’s description of Artemis, daughter of Zeus, the virgin goddess of wildlife. A deadly huntress who killed without mercy, striking down any who transgressed her law with her gold-tipped arrows, she was also a lover of animals, of music and dance, and a symbol of fertility. In Greek mythology, she was the quintessential ‘untamed’ woman: beautiful, alluring, but vengeful and unspeakably dangerous. Although men desired her, she kept her chastity, as anyone foolish enough to admire her too closely usually met with an untimely end.
With a stage full of percussion instruments hammering away aggressively and insistently, no one in the audience will doze off during this performance. Its opening movement is warlike in the spirit of Holst’s “Mars, The Bringer of War”. It is frightening. The third and final movement is more goddess-like but still spirited.
Shostakovich, Cello Concerto #1
No essay on Shostakovich could be complete without shining a light onto the politics of the Soviet Union in general and Stalin in particular. Lenin died in 1924. His successor the butcher Joseph Stalin ruled until his death in 1953. He did so with an iron fist over all aspects of Soviet life including the work and lives of artists.
Artists whose work found displeasure with Stalin were executed, sent to labor camps in Siberia, or publicly humiliated. Many of Shostakovich’s friends and colleagues fell into this group, especially during Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937 to 1938. Shostakovich’s family was not spared. Nor was Shostakovich’s longtime friend Vsevolod Meyerhold who was arrested. Nor was Shostakovich’s patron Mikhail Tukhachevsky who was accused of being an enemy of the people, arrested, and shot.
Shostakovich’s humiliations began with a 1936 denunciation by Stalin who stormed out of the theater in a rage after a performance of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Immediately after, the Soviet Union’s official newspaper Pravda published a critique saying of the opera, “The listener is flabbergasted by the deliberately dissonant, muddled stream of sounds…To follow this music is difficult, to remember it is impossible….” And the attacks continued. Shostakovich was not alone in being the butt of Stalin’s opprobrium. Prokofiev and Khachaturian were right in there with him.
Despite the large number of severe purges and poverty all around, artists had to portray life in the Soviet Union as a happy, joyous affair. It had to be portrayed as the workers’ paradise, celebrated even glorified. Music was required to take a form called Socialist Realism. It is ironic that Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth was realistic. Stalin’s Socialist Realism was anything but realistic.
Stalin died in 1953. He was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev who repudiated Stalin’s reign of terror against artists. Socialist Realism was officially suspended in 1958, the year before Shostakovich started and finished composing his Cello Concerto #1. The ban on “decadent music” (read Western music) ended. For years Shostakovich had been composing “drawer music”, music he had written only to be put into a drawer for fear it might see the light of day. We don’t know how much of this drawer music went into his cello concerti.
Beethoven, Symphony #2
This is a happy, joyful piece that is surprising since at the time of its composition beginning in 1801 Beethoven was contemplating suicide because of his increasingly obvious and undeniable oncoming deafness. As he told his childhood friend Franz Wegeler, who was also a physician, “That malicious demon…bad health has been a stumbling-block in my path; my hearing during the last three years has become gradually worse.” Despite the joy of this Symphony he said of his life at the time, “I can with truth say that my life is very wretched; for nearly two years past I have avoided all society, because I find it impossible to say to people, I am deaf! In any other profession this might be more tolerable, but in mine such a condition is truly frightful. Besides, what would my enemies say to this?–and they are not few in number.”
A year later while staying in Heilgenstadt (today part of Vienna) for his health he wrote his famous “Heilgenstadt Testament”. It was meant for his two brothers but never sent. He talks about suicidal thoughts. He says, “I would have ended my life. Only my art held me back. It seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt was within me.”
Luckily for us, despite this malady he went on to leave us with brilliant works and a musical world vastly different from the one he found at his career’s beginning. Happy 250th birthday, Mr. Beethoven, and thank you.
The Reno Chamber Orchestra performs at the Nightingale Concert Hall, University of Nevada, Reno. For more information please visit www.renochamberorchestra.org or call 775-348-9413.