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Re-Thinking the Concert Experience in South Dakota and Minnesota

Leningrad under Nazi siege, 1941-42

There was a time – the 1990s, when I was running the Brooklyn Philharmonic at BAM – when the practice of speaking from the stage at symphonic concerts was controversial, both among audiences and orchestra leaders. And people debated whether or not thematic programing was a good thing.

Those days are finally over. But the next step – fundamentally re-thinking the concert experience – lies largely dormant ahead.

I’m not referring to screens and new technologies, but to something more fundamental: programming. Every concert I’ve produced, beginning with those heady Brooklyn Philharmonic seasons, has been thematic. It works. The musical impact is strengthened. There is more to think about. Education and collaboration are facilitated. Museums curate thematic exhibits for these reasons.

One step beyond that is the narrative concert that tells a story – as with programs in which I recently participated in South Dakota and Minnesota. The South Dakota Symphony presented Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony linked to activities at two universities. “Dvorak’s Prophecy” at St. Olaf College linked to a second public event on cultural appropriation, a classroom visit, and meetings with individual students. 

I also encountered a counter-example – a standard-format concert by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra that went nowhere.

I have often written about the South Dakota Symphony in this space. So far as I am aware, it’s our most genuinely innovative, most inspirationally forward-looking professional orchestra. It is also the happiest professional orchestra I know, and the most engaged. Its mission is defined and driven by its Music Director of twenty years: Delta David Gier, who in 2004 moved to Sioux Falls and proceeded to raise a family there. Gier’s signature initiative is the Lakota Music Project, which links SDSO to Indian reservations across the state. He also regularly showcases new American music. And he regularly tackles big repertoire: a Mahler cycle, the St. Matthew Passion (unabridged), Redes with Revueltas’s great score performed live — and now Shostakovich 7. More than a century ago, Theodore Thomas – whose touring Thomas Orchestra made the concert orchestra an American specialty – preached: “A symphony orchestra shows the culture of a community.”  Gier’s South Dakota Symphony does that and more. It should become a national model.

Gier’s galvanizing reading of the Leningrad Symphony, three weeks ago, was preceded by a forty-minute “dramatic interlude” commencing with the lascivious trombone slides, from the opera Lady Macbeth, that got Shostakovich in big trouble with Stalin in 1936. The infamous Pravda editorial was recited. We moved on from there to the Fifth Symphony and its ostensible Socialist Realist contrition, thence to the horrific 872-day Nazi siege of Leningrad and Shostakovich’s legendary musical response. All this, with interpolated music, was co-scripted by Gier and myself. The Seventh Symphony followed after intermission.

The performance was attended by dozens of Music, History, and Political Science students bussed to Sioux Falls from South Dakota State University an hour away; they also took part in an hour-long post-concert discussion. In the days before and after that, I visited four SDSU classrooms. And the Dakota String Quartet (comprising principal players of the SDSO) visited with Shostakovich’s autobiographical Eighth String Quartet – which they contextualized, and also brought to the University of South Dakota an hour from Sioux Falls in the opposite direction.

For Mark Bertrand, the pastor of Sioux Falls’ Grace Presbyterian Church since 2017, the testimony of a German soldier, cited by Gier, underlined his experience of the long, inexorable crescendo climaxing the Leningrad Symphony. Using loudspeakers, the Soviets had broadcast Shostakovich’s symphony to the Nazi troops enveloping the city. A German soldier wrote afterward: ““It had a slow but powerful effect on us. The realization began to dawn that we would never take Leningrad. We began to see that there was something stronger than starvation, fear and weather – the will to remain human.” 

Bertrand also told me: “I think that by the end of the evening – the forty-minute preamble about Shostakovich, Stalin, and the siege of Leningrad, the eighty-minute symphony itself – all of us felt a combination of elation and exhaustion. We had gone through something important together. Of course, the symphony crescendos to a point of elation. But you also feel the sheer duration of it all. I sensed a kind of joyful weariness. You know, I’m a cynical person by nature – and David and the South Dakota Symphony are constantly challenging that cynicism. They renew my confidence in the meaning of art.” Like many others, Bertrand found himself reflecting, as well, on Ukrainian resistance to Russian troops today.

I spoke with David Reynolds, Director of Performing Arts and Professor of Music at South Dakota State University, about the ongoing collaboration with the South Dakota Symphony. He said: “Finding a way to use the performing arts to bring these important stories to life – in this case, stories about World War II, about the siege of Leningrad — is a wonderful way to touch students who are growing up with social medica and other non-traditional means of communication. I’ve always been passionate about arts in general education. I know that the students in our Music Appreciation course are the folks that one of these days are going to be bank presidents, school board members – jobs that will decide the role of the arts in public and private schools, and funding for the arts, twenty years from now. It’s vital to open their eyes to experiences just like these contextualized Shostakovich concerts. To leave them thinking, ‘my life would be incomplete without the arts being a part of it.’ ’’

Magda Modzelewska, the SDSO principal second violist since 1998, is also a member of the Dakota String Quartet. She told me: “This is a very special orchestra and I have felt that from the beginning. I remember there was once a survey of job satisfaction in different professions. And [orchestral] musicians – their job satisfaction was the lowest. I have been very lucky – we don’t appear to have this attitude problem. There’s a sense of gratitude for what we do, of friendship and common purpose.“ She called Delta David Gier “a rare conductor with a big heart and a set of really solid values.” She called her work as a core participant in the Lakota Music Project “humbling . . . in Indian culture we’ve found such peace and good will.”

(My next NPR “More than Music” documentary, for the newsmagazine 1A, will be “Shostakovich in South Dakota” on April 24.)

* * *

Not long after my two weeks in South Dakota, I took part in a series of events at St. Olaf College based on Dvorak’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music. St. Olaf is famous for its choral program. It also boasts an exceptional student orchestra (that tours). The superb conductor, Chung Park, is new this school year; his predecessor for forty-one years, Steven Amundson, is a local legend.

I was invited to narrate a St. Olaf orchestral concert telling a story. The second half comprised Dvorak’s New World Symphony. The first half freshly contextualized that familiar work.

We began with Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance Op. 46, No. 3, composed in Prague, in direct juxtaposition with an excerpt from his American Suite, composed in New York City. Whereas the New World Symphony is a European symphony with an American accent, the American Suite, a year later, doesn’t “sound like Dvorak”; rather incredibly, it is bona fide American music. I introduced the suite’s third movement by correlating its three themes with minstrel dances, plantation song, and Dvorak’s desolate “Indian” mode – not an attempt to adapt Native American song, but a personal and compassionate evocation of the tragedy of Native America.

After that came William Arms Fisher’s “Goin’ Home” – his famous 1922 adaptation of Dvorak’s Largo, sung with orchestra by Emery Stephens of the St. Olaf faculty. Without a pause, Chung Park then launched “Hope in the Night” – the middle movement of William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony (1932). This work is a huge find, in which Dvorak’s 1893 prophecy – that “Negro melodies” would foster a “great and noble school of music” – discovers searing fruition. And I introduced the New World Symphony, on the second half, by citing four passages in which Dvorak found inspiration in Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha.

Many in the audience, many in the orchestra, afterward said that their listening experience was transformed by this exercise in informed engagement.

While I was at St. Olaf’s, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra turned up with a mixed program including Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony alongside shorter works by Fanny Mendelssohn and Hummel. Comparisons were inescapable. Mendelssohn’s symphony was inspired by a visit to Scotland. The canopy of sorrow that magically distinguishes this work are captured in a letter home reading in part: “In the deep twilight we went today to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved. . . . The chapel below is now roofless. Grass and ivy thrive there and at the broken altar where Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything is ruined, decayed, and the clear heavens pour in. I think I have found there the beginning of my ‘Scottish’ Symphony.” Much can be done with this information — especially for an audience of college students.

The online program note (there was no printed program) comprised two sentences. Nothing was said from the stage. The performance itself (sans conductor) was featureless. Both the South Dakota Symphony’s Shostakovich, and the St. Olaf Orchestra’s Dvorak, if less polished, were more energized, more distinctive. Chung Park’s smashing reading of the Slavonic Dance sang with trumpet vibratos and string portamentos. In the Leningrad Symphony, Gier masterfully shaped the long slow movement, challenging his players (in rehearsal) to give everything they could to the culminating reprise of the opening chorale theme. I have rarely heard such massed sonic intensity from a string choir.

Both the SDSO concert and the St. Olaf concert were livestreamed. My 26-year-old daughter watched the SDSO’s Shostakovich concert from New York City. She phoned me afterward. Were her friends to encounter “concerts like that,” she said, they would be converted to classical music. 

The stakes are that high.

I take part in “Mahler and New York” via the Argento New Music Project April 4 in New York City. Then I’m with George Shirley and Chamber Music Cincinnati, April 10-11. Then April 12 at Princeton University: “Dvorak’s Prophecy,” with John McWhorter, Sidney Outlaw, and Allen Guelzo via the university’s James Madison Program.

To read Alex Ross in The New Yorker on the South Dakota Symphony, click here.

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