Chamber Orchestra's "Fall of the Berlin Wall'

Another rebirth of freedom

The young Solzhenitsyn: Exile's return.
The young Solzhenitsyn: Exile's return.

The Cold War ended with a surprising lack of hoopla, given the importance of the event. The threat of nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union had hung over the world since I was 12 years old, and the long confrontation between the super powers had affected every American.

The peacetime draft put a third of our eligible males in uniform every year, and the young men who avoided that fate usually had to make adjustments in the way they spent part of their 20s. We acquired a permanent large-scale military budget and political tensions that included McCarthyism and growing disenchantment among important groups of intellectuals.

Then it all faded away. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Americans turned our attention to a new set of problems.

Still, there were moments when the impulse to celebrate broke through the general reserve. For me, one of the most touching was a photograph, buried in the inside pages of a newspaper, that showed a crew from the Strategic Air Command dousing each other with champagne.

Bomb patrol

For 40 years, their bombers had maintained a 24-hour airborne alert. Every hour of every day, a fleet of armed U.S. bombers had cruised above the U.S., safe from a missile attack that could have destroyed them on the ground. SAC recruits had been told they would spend their entire careers standing that alert, fully prepared to turn toward the North Pole and carry their bombs to the Soviet Union. Then they had received the order none of them expected: Stand down.

The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 was probably the event that moved the largest number of people. The organizers of the second Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts chose an ideal way to commemorate it: a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, conducted by Ignat Solzhenitsyn.

Leonard Bernstein conducted a celebratory performance of the Ninth in Berlin on Christmas Day 1989. Solzhenitsyn could speak to the audience in Verizon Hall as someone who watched the collapse of the wall with all the emotions of a Russian exile.

Joy of young Germans

Solzhenitsyn came to the U.S. in 1974, when he was two, after his father was expelled from the Soviet Union, but he maintained strong emotional links to the millions of countrymen his family had left behind. He has maintained those links as his career has flourished, most notably as the principal guest conductor of the Moscow Symphony.

Solzhenitsyn preceded the Ninth with two pieces accompanied by large-screen videos. Wind of Change is a 1990 rock piece composed by Klaus Meine of Scorpions, the German heavy metal group. That song captured the feelings of young Germans and remains popular to this day.

Daniel Capelletti's orchestration of the song opened with a long instrumental interlude that provided an effective background to the images of the Wall projected across the screens. Capelletti's arrangement added musical touches that included a brief quartet played by the principals of the four string sections. The vocal line, sung in English by tenor Adam Frandsen, created a haunting sense of the yearning that accompanied the change portrayed in the visuals.

"'Repression,' or Communism?

The second item was a nine-minute piece by Mikhail Dmitrievich Smirnov that's normally titled Epitaph for the Victims of Repression. Solzhenitsyn explained that "repression" has become a euphemism in Russia, so he placed it on the program under the composer's preferred title: Epitaph for the Victims of Communism.

It's a beautiful work that was enhanced by the images of memorials that accompanied it. In the middle it swells to an interlude that suggests a kind of victory. It ends with a series of single notes on the cellos and basses that gradually fade into silence.

Solzhenitsyn led the first three movements of Beethoven's Ninth with a strong sense of their emotional content. The scherzo rolled along with a good-natured drive. The slow movement was a long sojourn in a deeply peaceful landscape.

Lost in Verizon

Solzhenitsyn opted for a slightly expanded version of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia for this performance, as he customarily does when he leads the Chamber Orchestra through Beethoven symphonies in the Perelman Theater.

That's an effective strategy in the Perelman, where a few more instruments can bring out details you don't normally hear. It worked most of the time in the much larger Verizon Hall, too. But at some moments I would have preferred the monumental sound that a larger orchestra could have generated.

In the fourth movement, on the other hand, the smaller orchestra made a better partner for the chorus. The chorus didn't have to penetrate the wall of sound created by a big orchestra, so you could hear all the clarity and grace that the Mendelssohn Club brings to its scores.

Choral celebration

Solzhenitsyn broke with conventional practice and placed the four soloists with the chorus, in the balcony behind the orchestra. The soloists all possessed voices that could penetrate Verizon Hall from that position, so the placement enhanced their relationship with the chorus.

When the chorus responded to the tenor, it sounded like a true reply. When the soloists launched into a quartet interlude, they sounded like they really were leading a group celebration.

The presence of Philadelphia's oldest volunteer chorus added to the symbolism of the event. What could be more appropriate than 100 of Philadelphia's best singers voluntarily coming together to raise their voices in Beethoven's great expression of universal joy?

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