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There’s a change in the weather at the Brooklyn Philharmonic.

The orchestra has just announced revisions to its 2000-2001 season, including this weekend’s program.  And although musical director Robert Spano’s larger musical hopes will go unrealized - Hector Berlioz’s massive "Romeo and Juliet," which was to be performed Feb. 23-24 with several top-flight vocalists and a large chorus, was scrapped - his reworked orchestral schedule remains under the rubric of this season: "Liebestod: Love and Loss."

The next concert program, instead of Berlioz, now consists of three Russian composers’ responses to suffering and death - Arvo Part’s "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten," Sergei Rachmaninoff’s "The Isle of the Dead" and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in E-minor (Op. 93).

Since the former Soviet Union had what could be considered the world’s bloodiest and most tumultuous 20th century, it’s no surprise that many of her composers have used that tortured history as a springboard for their own probing, deeply personal musical outpourings. And the Philharmonic’s revised program, to be performed at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, highlights a trio of the most distinctive Russian composers.

Beginning with Estonian Part’s brief eulogy for a fellow composer, "Benjamin Britten," the first half of the program concludes with Rachmaninoff’s vivid tone poem, "Isle of the Dead," a dazzlingly orchestrated work inspired by an Arnold Bocklin painting.

But the centerpiece of this weekend’s program is the 10th symphony by Shostakovich, who, along with Sergei Prokofiev, was at the very pinnacle of Russian music throughout the century. (Although Igor Stravinsky nominally fits the bill also, his work was too cosmopolitan to be strictly defined as "Russian.")

Shostakovich’s career was as up-and-down as the country he so fiercely loved: his music was often criticized and even banned at the behest of a tone-deaf Josef Stalin, and the composer occasionally put his tail between his legs and created some jingoistic pieces to keep the ever-watchful Politburo happy.

But after Stalin died, in February 1953, Shostakovich penned his first symphony in more than eight years (the longest such stretch between symphonic works in a career that contained 15 symphonies). Shostakovich’s 10th symphony became one of the longest, most gripping and emotionally shattering musical documents he ever created.

At nearly an hour, Shostakovich’s symphony traverses a huge musical, historical and personal terrain. Many who have heard it believe parts are a musical summing-up of Stalin; not a eulogy or tribute, of course, but a complex, difficult, endlessly fascinating working-out of the demons that plagued the composer - from within and without - during Stalin’s lifetime. And the subversive, even playful character, of parts of the symphony underscore Shostakovich’s own belief that Stalin’s death did not signal the death of tyranny (which, of course, it didn’t).

Shostakovich’s music retains its immediacy, its raw power, its stunning bluntness. Even in a relatively crowded market, a new recording of the 10th symphony by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Valeri Polyansky on the Chandos label, stands out for its remarkable ability to juggle the contradictions inherent in Shostakovich’s musical personality.

Polyansky deserves praise for shaping this large, unashamedly confessional work into a mesmerizing whole.

If Spano and his musicians can approach the bludgeoning forcefulness that the Chandos recording generates, audiences this weekend will leave the BAM opera house breathless.


Additional changes

After receiving a grant from the City Council for $250,000 - which, along with other contributions, will enable the orchestra to finish its current season and plan for next year - Spano announced changes to all but one of this season’s remaining programs.

The March 16-17 performances were originally Spano’s own string arrangement of Bach’s mighty "The Art of the Fugue." Now, soprano Dawn Upshaw is accompanied by Spano on piano for songs by Claude Debussy and Maurice Delage, and filling out the evening are some of the Philharmonic’s principal players performing Olivier Messiaen’s "Quartet for the End of Time" and a work by Maurice Ravel.

The April 6 and April 8 programs - of music by Purcell, Wagner, Berio, Scriabin and the premiere of Michael Hersch’s "Umbra" - remain the same. However, the season’s final program - May 18-19 - no longer consists of Stravinsky’s "Oedipus Rex" and the premiere of a Sophocles-inspired work by Christopher Theofanidis. Rather, Mahler’s luxuriant Symphony No. 3 fills the entire bill.

The Philharmonic, along with Leon Botstein’s American Symphony Orchestra, has the best thematic programs of any local orchestra, and it’s gratifying to report that not only is the Philharmonic still alive and kicking, but its challenging 2000-2001 season remains just that.


The Brooklyn Philharmonic will perform its Part, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich program on Feb. 23 and Feb. 24 at 8 pm at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House. Pre-concert discussions are at 7 pm in the Hillman Attic Studio. Tickets are $8, $20, $35 and $45. Student, senior and some day of performance tickets are $10. ID required. For more information and to order tickets visit or call (718) 636-4100.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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