Russians Close Venerable Cincinnati May Festival

United StatesUnited States  Shostakovich, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky: Mikhail Kolelishvili (bass-baritone), Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati May Festival Chorus, James Conlon (conductor), Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio. 30.5.2015 (RDA).

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13 in B flat minor, Babi Yar
Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina (excerpts)
Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture

The 142nd Cincinnati May Festival closed with an exciting performance of Shostakovich’s Babi Yar Symphony, excerpts from Mussorgsky’s opera Khovanshchina, and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. But despite the vibrant, passionate music-making onstage, an audience of less than half of the Music Hall’s capacity (about 3,500) failed to respond in kind. And neither the authoritative conducting of James Conlon, nor the extraordinary singing of Georgian bass Mikhail Kolelishvili, nor the sterling work of the May Festival Chorus (singing in idiomatic Russian), nor the committed playing of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra could stave off a mass exodus at intermission—a sizeable portion of the already-sparse audience.

As to the performance itself, one can only offer superlatives, beginning with the brilliant playing by the CSO of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 in B flat minor, Babi Yar, which commemorates the 1941 mass extermination of 70,000 Ukrainian Jews at the hands of the Nazis. The anguished, often sarcastic poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko was sung by the formidable bass, Mikhail Kolelishvili and responded to by the May Festival Chorus—all accompanied by the composer’s blunt, brassy, percussive orchestration. Babi Yar is neither easy nor audience-friendly. Lasting over an hour, it is a harrowing musical-dramatic journey that demands attention to both the music and the difficult text, the latter projected on a large screen above the stage.

Georgian-born Mikhail Kolelishvili, billed in the program as a bass-baritone, comes from a long line of Slavic bass singers, including his fellow Georgian, Paata Burchuladze, the Russian Yevgneny Nesterenko, and “the Bulgarian Atlas,” Boris Christoff. In the second half’s Khovanshchina excerpts, Kolelishvili sang Mussorgsky’s orthodox hymnal-inflected utterances with patriarchal authority, inhabiting the lower reaches of the bass clef with complete comfort, then rose to the top of his range for the hectoring tirades of the anti-Christ, Ivan Khovansky. As this still-young singer continues his rapid ascent, he will surely join the company of those greats mentioned earlier. In his immediate schedule are iconic Russian bass roles, with others to follow, especially the title role of Mussorgsky’s other opera, Boris Godunov.

A rousing 1812 Overture brought the evening and the 2015 Festival to a close. But the lingering afterthought remained: whither the audience for classical music in the Queen City?

Rafael de Acha

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