A cuckoo, popping out from its home to wish listeners a piercing, rhythmic hello. Upper strings coming in as a dizzying, modified melody. A deeper-throated cuckoo in a far-away nest, his throbbing birdsong flowing and out of conversation.
These are the sounds that Yevgeniy Sharlat hears at the beginning of Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 6 in D Major, Op. 101, by now one of his oldest musical friends and influences. As the piece moves from melody to a frenetic, discordant middle and forced resolution, he sees the composer’s life flash before him: his burgeoning talent, lauded and then resisted by the Soviet government; a conflicted artist striving for both modernism and Communist-approved perfection, withdrawing his fourth symphony before it was performed; a government that seemed to flip-flop on the artist’s music too quickly for him to keep up.
In this, Sharlat also saw his own story: his escape from the former Soviet Union at 14, leaving behind both a rich artistic heritage and rampant anti-Semitism; his blissful rediscovery of Shostakovich, Mieczysław Weinberg, and Pyotor Ilyich Tchaikovsky as a music student in the United States. Saturday night, he deconstructed the piece and others with the Haven String Quartet during their latest concert, an exploration into Soviet modernism at the Unitarian Society of New Haven.
“The theme of this concert was officially announced as ‘Soviet Modernism,’” he began. “I would like to say that it’s a little bit inaccurate, because it really should have been called ‘Repressed Soviet Modernism.’ And that’s very important, because when people talk about ‘Soviet Modernism,’ they refer to the period [of the] 1920s and ‘30s, when Soviet artists ... expressed themselves very uninhibitedly. But that era was short-lived; it came to a horrifying end in the late 1930s.”
He added that much of the music from the period is personified by “moments of beauty, of calm ... but always tension.”
And it’s true: Soviet artists do walk a very audible artistic tightrope. As in Shostakovich’s sixth string quartet. It’s a breathy plea of a piece. A keep-both-feet-on-the-floor piece, a big guns kind of piece. Written in 1956 against the crimson backdrop of the Hungarian uprising, it is the kind of work that can’t agree with itself, and drew strength Saturday from its discord. In the allegro movement, the mechanics of musical dialogue had never seemed so necessary or so difficult to attain; by the lento movement, the audience had been left alone with him in an empty room, the walls closing in slowly; and the lento allegro found him pulling himself up by some serious bootstraps to brave what may come.
So too in Weinberg‘s String Quartet No. 6 in E. Minor, Op. 35 (1936), which the artist never heard performed during his lifetime. As the strings fretted and feuded, the audience was worked into an aural and visual trance. Elements of folk songs gone awry sprang forward, there was a shrill warning alarm from the violin, and at last, when the audience was not sure it was possible, the piece arrived at an exquisitely jarring resolution.
Or take Sharlat’s own String Quartet No. 1 (2000), written while he was a student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. The piece is dizzying and increasingly schizophrenic, parts of it fitting together like an errant jigsaw that has been on the shelf collecting dust for too long.
Which lent itself perfectly to the kind of conversation the Haven String Quartet was — and continues to be — interested in having as it finds new ways to make their concerts fresh and accessible. Their merging of musical repressions and obsessions, students’ performance of New Music, and cross-organizational, hands-on initiatives within the group, like a collaboration with the Yale School of Architecture, all represent the direction in which the organization is heading as it transitions from the Hadari era to a new executive director.
About that, Hadari had only one piece of advice, thanks to an arrangement of “Man in the Mirror” that Sharlat had done for them a few years ago.
“If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change.”
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