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Forte: Back in the U.S.S.R.

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Alexander Nevsky (courtesy photo)

YAKIMA, Wash. -- This Saturday, the Yakima Symphony Orchestra concludes a seasonlong “Musical Voyage Around the World” with a program specific not only to a place, but also to a momentous time for music and musicians in that place: the Soviet Union in the late 1930s.

The 1917 Russian revolution was followed by a period of intense creative experimentation during which artists were free to reinvent the purpose, forms and meaning of their art to reflect the radical social changes around them.

By the early 1930s, political centralization of arts and culture had led to committees of nonartist bureaucrats demanding conformity to a carefully defined Soviet aesthetic, but the most prominent artists and composers still enjoyed a degree of artistic and personal freedom.

Composer Dmitri Shostakovich was a child of the revolution and supportive of its original ideals. By the mid-1930s, he was the darling of Soviet musical culture and an emerging international star. His opera, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” a Marxist reinterpretation of its original pre-revolutionary story, had become a huge critical success at home and abroad.

Nevertheless, after Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin attended a performance of the opera in January 1936, an unsigned (but clearly very official) notice appeared in the state newspaper Pravda denouncing the work as “formalist” and “decadent,” and for the next two years Shostakovich literally feared for his life.

His fifth symphony, which premiered late in 1937, marked his official rehabilitation as a Soviet composer — traditional in form and musical language and uplifting in tone. The government censors could find no fault and the work quickly became and remains a staple of symphonic repertoire worldwide, but the message was clear: Even the most elite among Soviet citizens must still answer to government oversight.

Sergei Prokofiev, some 15 years older than Shostakovich, spent much of the 1920s and ’30s living abroad and touring Western Europe and the United States as a pianist and composer. It was not until 1932 that he determined to relocate back to the Soviet Union, realizing only too late the creative implications of this decision.

By the late 1930s, he and experimental film pioneer Sergei Eisenstein realized that their only chance for survival lay in subject matter that portrayed Stalin and Russia in the most heroic light; thus in 1938 was born the epic nationalist film “Alexander Nevsky,” celebrating the 13th century defeat of invading German forces by the prince of Novgorod.

Prokofiev’s innate musical understanding of the rhythm and pacing of film led to an unusual degree of collaboration; Eisenstein on occasion cut sequences of the film to his music rather than treating the music merely as accompaniment.

As this weekend’s performance with the Yakima Symphony Chorus will demonstrate, the result is music suited as well for the concert hall as for the silver screen.

• David Rogers is executive director of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra. Learn more at www.ysomusic.org.

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