In concert, in conflict

Daniil Trifonov’s walk to the piano on the concert platform of the Maison Symphonique in Montreal was the most expressive I’ve seen. Averted from the audience, not acknowledging our applause, he seemed to convey an air of suffering. His current appearance intensified the effect: a slender young man, he is heavily bearded, with long, straight hair hanging down around his collar. He looks like a portrait by Ivan Kramskoi, a revenant from the nineteenth century, an age more reverent of high art than our own. That night, what he also communicated, whether he wanted to or not, was the condition of being Russian, a great Russian musician, in a historical moment of Russia’s absolute moral disgrace. He sat at the piano, in profile to the audience, and did not move while we all listened to the orchestra playing the opening piece. Many of the musicians surrounding Trifonov wore ribbons of the Ukrainian colors on their lapels.

The context of the event had been made clear by Marianne Perron, director of musical programming at the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (or Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal; OSM). Switching between English and French in official Canadian style, she explained that we would hear works that resonated particularly during Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Trifonov would play two Russian concertos, one by Alfred Schnittke, a composer of the Soviet postwar period, and one by Prokofiev, who, between 1918 and 1936, “s’est exilé d’un régime totalitaire“. French orchestral works by Paul Dukas and Debussy would speak of a different world. First, there would be a performance of “Prayer for Ukraine” by the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov. Some context that went unmentioned, and that may well have been in the minds of the audience, was the controversy surrounding Trifonov’s invitation and the protest against it that had taken place outside.

The orchestra had in March canceled a concert with another Russian pianist, Alexander Malofeev, a student at the Moscow Conservatory, despite his having made clear public statements of opposition to the invasion of Ukraine. Trifonov, who has lived in New York for some years, made his own statement via Instagram and was, by contrast, careful not to apportion blame. “Every war is a tragedy. As a musician, I wish to bring solace and peace in these difficult times.” This remote and generalized sadness appears to be his only reference to the subject, and leaves his judgment of Russia’s actions opaque. Other Russian musicians have been far more explicit in their condemnation: the pianist Evgeny Kissin, in a specially made video message, called the invasion “a crime that cannot be justified”; and Kirill Petrenko, the Russian-Austrian chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, described “Putin’s insidious attack on Ukraine” as “a knife in the back of the entire peaceful world”.

The OSM also used social media to defend going ahead with Trifonov’s concerts, declaring on the organization’s Facebook page its wish to “renew its full and sincere support for the Ukrainian people” while not “plac[ing] the burden of war on artists who have nothing to do with the atrocities being committed in Ukraine. We sincerely hope that Trifonov’s presence with the OSM will help spread a message of peace and that music will be louder than weapons.” This will not have satisfied the signatories of the Change.org petition “Say No to the concert of Russian pianist organized by the OSM”.

Gregory Bedik of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress in Quebec called the events “a slap in the face of those who are fighting in Ukraine against Putin”. Outside the Place des Arts, the protesters confronted ticket holders with a line of placards that included the accusation “Bought a Ticket = Killed a Child”.

Silvestrov would not accept this equation. In a recent interview he insisted that Russian music, like Ukrainian music, is inextricably a part of European culture, and has often been composed by people in opposition to Russia’s regimes, both tsarist and Soviet. From this perspective, Russian music is presumed to be naturally in alliance with the rest of Europe, whatever is happening in Russia. As far as Putin is concerned, Silvestrov is clear: “[He is] Frankly speaking, a terrorist, an international terrorist, one like Bin Laden, but a thousand times more dangerous.” On March 8 Silvestrov fled from Kyiv with his daughter and granddaughter, and he is now living as a refugee in Berlin.

Since the beginning of the war, “Prayer for Ukraine” has been performed by orchestras around the world. It is a simple, melodic, heartfelt piece, originally written for choir, full of long phrases with the rapt intensity of Barber’s Adagio, inspired by the singing and prayers that Silvestrov heard at the Euromaidan protests of 2013-14 before their violent suppression. With a welter of images of more recent events inevitably in mind-burned-out apartment buildings, the injured and dead, rolling tanks, panicked crowds at the borders – it is irresistibly moving. The new orchestration makes use of a particular effect, unsounded notes blown through the flutes: the bare sound of breath elapsing makes a very direct human appeal as the piece attenuates and fades into silence. No one in the hall started to applaud. It was in this silence, this context, that after a long pause Trifonov began to play.

Schnittke’s Concerto for Piano and Strings begins with the piano unaccompanied. Brief pairs of notes are the first quiet utterances of a developing soliloquy that alternates sweet phrases with crashing dissonances, and becomes louder and more anguished before the strings join, first as a soft, sinister shadow of the piano’s sound, then as a frightening, tolling background. Written in 1979 and programmed for the concert long before the war in Ukraine began, the concerto proceeds, in a single movement lasting roughly twenty minutes, to explore this space of suffering, outrage and injury, with moments of quiet recuperation lost again in the sudden harmonic breakdowns and stabbing attacks of the strings.

Music unfolds beyond language, of course, and its semantic silence makes the ascription of paraphrasable meanings at all times suspect. But it might also be argued that overwhelming historical events can narrow the range of associations of a piece in performance. I can’t know what Trifonov experienced or intended as he played, but for me it felt like an intensely vivid account of the present disaster, almost a kind of musical reportage, a drama of vulnerability, bombardment, survival and lament. If he had perhaps held back in his Instagram post, he didn’t do so at the piano, where his communication was copious and raging. I was reminded at times of a piece by another postwar Polish composer, Witold Lutosławski. His Cello Concerto of 1970 also begins with the soloist breaking the concert hall’s silence with short, uncertain phrases, and makes use of the concerto form’s natural setting of the solo voice against the collective by pitting the vulnerable, hesitant cello part against an overbearing, nearly annihilating orchestral environment. Mstislav Rostropovich, the concerto’s dedicatee and first performer, thought the piece a clear articulation of the experience of the individual under an oppressive state. Lutosławski refused this interpretation and offered no meanings of his own.

Trifonov played passages of fortissimo chords with unselfconscious ferocity, as though, if necessary, he would break the instrument. He is known for this “demonic” element in his virtuosity. A faultless technique and deep musicality allow a fierce and fearless eloquence, a free vocalization. He was matched in this by the orchestra and the conductor, Rafael Payare, a product of Venezuela’s El Sistema newly newly in Montreal. A restless, flashing silhouette, he conducts in large, arcing gestures. In one moment of high energy, he lost a cufflink, which flew onto the stage with a smack that was ignored by all. (Except the page-turner: he discreetly drew it close with the side of his shoe and pocketed it for safety.) Trifonov did not seem to notice, playing in a trance of concentration. In the moment it felt as though the whole audience’s absorption matched that of the pianist.

Certainly, I was mesmerized by one of the greatest performances I’ve seen. Even the inevitable mobile phone ringing during a bleakly quiet passage didn’t distract from the music; it made me think, instantly, of all the mobile phones ringing unanswered in the ruins in Ukraine. At its end the concerto dissipated into silence: a tense, sustained, silvery chord in the strings, the piano repeating a high note at the faintest pianissimo edge of hearing. Then came the release of applause, louder and louder as the hall rose in a standing ovation. The unified noise of appreciation, given the particular circumstances, felt like a special kind of solidarity and affirmation, not only of an outstanding musician, but of the concert taking place at all, and, perhaps – who knows – of the organizers’ pious hope for it to spread a message of peace. Trifonov was cheered back to the stage several times before sitting down for an encore.

After another hour of extraordinary music, we all filed back out into the night, still cold at this time of year in Montreal. The protesters were gone, the street shone with a light rain. Murmured conversations, taxi cabs, the usual swirl of dissolution after a concert: a grandeur of feeling that lasted for the journey home, where we checked the latest news and saw where the missiles had fallen while we were out.

Adam Folds‘s most recent novel, Dream Sequencewas published in 2019

The post In concert, in conflict appeared first on TLS.

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