Welcome to Full-Assed Friday, where I share something awesome, funny, or just plain different. Today I’m going to share what I did last Friday and how it made me end up with an extra pair of clean underwear at work which became incredibly useful when I got stranded in the city Saturday night.
I worked a second gig last week. I was fortunate enough to be asked to help do sound for a reading of a brand-new musical. One not based on a movie, book, or musical artist.
When people are putting together new shows, often they will do semi-staged readings with some production elements in front of potential investors. The idea being that the money people can see the heart of the show with enough production to know if they want to invest. It’s fast and furious and fun, if you’re into the adrenaline rush and can pull it off without screwing up too bad.
Usually the rehearsals and readings are done during the day because the actors and crew are doing other shows at night.
The rehearsal space we were in was near Lincoln Center. They have a bunch of fancy new signs there that tastefully scroll (yes, I said tastefully scroll) the upcoming events. Coming in early one morning I saw an ad scroll by for Kurt Masur conducting the NY Philharmonic playing Schubert and Shostakovich at the end of the week.
Musur AND Shostakovich? Whoa.
My under-caffienated brain started whirring away. I was beside myself with excitement. Let me explain.
I have an obsession with all things Soviet. I’ve read a freakish amount of Russian history. My most recent foray into this obsession was the controversial book Testimony: the Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich by Soloman Volkov (he kinda looks like Harry Potter in the sketch on the cover). The controversy is over whether the memoir is authentic. It’s a totally understandable question, being that when someone spoke out against the Soviet government, it could mean jail, work camps, and death for the speaker (not to mention his entire family and all his friends and anybody who had ever talked to him).
I believe the memoir is authentic and I was surprised to find myself charmed by Shostakovich’s outlook, passion, and humor. He’s also ballsy, and damn lucky. This is a guy who saw many of his counterparts in music and art disappear into the Gulag for no real reason.
Now, the Masur part.
When I was in college (the second time around, the time I didn’t drop out) I was in the audio program that was part of I.U.’s School of Music. We did archival recordings for nearly every event that happened in all the performance spaces.
I think it was my first semester there that they broke ground on a new Musical Arts Center. The new building was to have, among other things, more performance spaces and a badass control room for us audio geeks. It opened my last semester with a seriously impressive lineup of guest performances.
I remember being in that new control room with my friend Jeff and a couple other students. We all had headphones on and were laying down on the new carpet, blissing out while eavesdropping on Joshua Bell’s rehearsal and the dean walked in. We didn’t hear him at first. Because, you know, the soundproofing, and the headphones and all. He gave us some kind of dean-like equivalent of a thumbs up and left us to it.
For the inauguration of the new building, Kurt Masur came in and conducted IU’s Philharmonic playing Mahler. I don’t remember which one because I’m not a real music person but, being Mahler, there were like nine harps and a bunch of other extra crap and the stage was fuller than I had ever seen it. Mahler doesn’t do anything half-assed either, but he’s just a sidebar today; in this post, he is a vehicle for the Masur.
I was in the booth for the rehearsals and remember being so impressed by Kurt Masur, the way that he spoke to the musicians and the results he got out of them. I watched him pause at places in the score and have actual conversations with sections, heard them laughing, heard them play.
The night of the performance, he strode to the conductor’s platform, raised his baton, and led the IU Philharmonic in the most kickass performance I’d ever heard. It was then that I realized he was not using a score. I’d never seen anyone do that before and it blew me away.
So, back to the here and now. Here I am on a Tuesday morning in Lincoln Center, barely awake and seeing that Kurt Masur is going to be conducting the New York Philharmonic (who don’t suck, even a little bit), play Shostakovich.
Because of my job, I don’t go to many events. If it’s not happening on a Monday night, I’ve got to take a day off from work to “go out”. And if I take a day off, I should spend it with the kids, because I don’t get to see them enough as it is.
But this little nugget burrowed into my brain and wouldn’t leave until finally, at 11pm on Thursday night I got a sitter, got my Friday show covered, and got a ticket. I had a full day in the city, starting with my second gig, so I packed my suit, which I hadn’t worn since March and wasn’t quite sure how it would fit. I included a couple of underwear choices, because sometimes that matters with pants. Particularly if they’re fitting a bit on the snug side.
Here’s where I tell the ending in the middle: I didn’t need the no-lines version of the underwear, which is how I ended up having a spare pair at work when I got stranded in the city the next night because of Snowtober. Sweet!
I got to the hall early. I had a cheap seat but it was perfect. It was absolutely thrilling to be in the presence of a live, full, real orchestra without a single thing mic’d and not one electronic instrument. They mixed themselves. Ahhh.
I don’t mean to belittle the Schubert. It was his Unfinished and it was most excellent, even if it was unfinished. I don’t know Schubert but I totally dug it. But the Shostakovich- oh!
It was the Thirteenth. Babi Yar. And the entire point of this post is to tell you how it’s full-assed.
The program notes matched with what I had read in Testimony, but I didn’t know the details of the massacre at Babi Yar. The nutshell version is on September 29 and 30, 1941, Nazis, with the cooperation of Soviet Secret Police slaughtered 33,771 Jews. Um, that’s the official count, the number that they actually owned up to. Evidence shows that the number is far greater. Even the Nazis knew it looked bad, the way it went down.
There exists a Russian poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who has written many great poems. He visited Babi Yar and wrote a poem about it, because that’s what he does. Shostakovich set it to music, and that’s the opening to the Thirteenth Symphony: big ass Orchestra, Men’s Choir, and Bass Soloist. As my friend Jeff says of this one, lots of low brass. I nearly wet myself when I saw the tuba mute come out.
This all went down about nine years after Stalin died. Everything had changed, but nothing had changed- not really, not yet. People were starting to be less afraid but that part was only beginning. You could still go to jail, the Gulag, or be killed for speaking out against the government.
Attempts were made to sabotage the premier. It finally did premier in December, 1962 in Moscow with a different conductor (the second) and a different bass soloist (the third). Sitting in Manhattan in 2011, I imagined what that premier must have been like- because this poem is heavy; it fully implicates the Soviet government in its role in the massacre and coverup at Babi Yar.
In the performance of the symphony, one dude stands in front of the whole orchestra facing the audience and sings this poem, full out. In Russian. He’s answered by the men’s choir at the back of the stage, singing in unison. In Russian. How I wish I had words adequate to describe the music, but writing about music is ridiculous (yes, I realize I am doing it right now). The music is chilling and it travels through your body.
Accounts of the premier in Moscow say the hall burst into thunderous applause at the end of the first movement, a big no-no when it comes to symphony etiquette (this is why I never lead applause). But people couldn’t contain the emotions this movement wrought out of them.
In 2011 Manhattan, in Avery Fisher Hall, the first note gave me goosebumps. At the end, there were numerous subdued vocal responses out of the audience that were variations of the one in my head (“Holy. Sh*t.”).
I’ll leave you with a snippet of the poem, written by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, translation by Valeria Vlazinskaya, from the New York Philharmonic program:
Over Babi Yar the wild grasses rustle.
The trees look sternly as if in judgment.
Here everything screams silently and,
taking off my hat
I feel I am slowly turning gray.
And I myself am one long soundless cry,
Above the thousand thousands buried here.
I am every old man here shot dead.
I am every child here shot dead.
Nothing in me will ever forget this.
If you ever get the chance, go see it.