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Heads Will Roll: Kentucky Symphony Celebration of Freedom After Dictatorship

The Kentucky Symphony Orchestra will fill Northern Kentucky University’s Greaves Concert Hall stage on April 9 - baritone Kenneth Shaw, 150 voices from the KSO Chorale, the Northern Kentucky Community Chorus, and Voices of the Commonwealth and 70 musicians – for Dmitri Shostakovich’s rarely heard Execution of Stenka Razin.

The cantata is a wall of sound experience for the audience and, “We get to sing our guts out,” says Voices of the Commonwealth music director Tony Burdette. “It’s exciting.”

Razin is the second half of Kentucky Symphony’s all-Shostakovich program, Heads Will Roll.

Why are those heads rolling? “Joseph Stalin was the quintessential party pooper,” KSO’s music director James Cassidy understates. Millions of Russians died during Stalin’s three decade reign of terror.

It wasn’t until after his death in 1953, Cassidy continues, that “Soviet composers feel slightly more confident about writing music without being censored or denounced by the Communist state.”

In fact, patrons can enjoy a round of “Dunk the Dictator” before the concert – more on that later.

Cassidy is enjoying the challenge that a large work brings. That starts with stage size, logistics, and scheduling, which can make doing really large cast works a challenge, he says. “We had 237 people on stage at Greaves back in 2003 when we presented Philip Glass’s Funeral from Akhnaten and Orff’s Carmina Burana. It will be tight quarters.”

The program opens with Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony, which scholars describe as a musical depiction of the oppressive Stalin years and even Stalin himself. It was the composer’s first symphony in nine years, finally creating work “without the constant fear of censorship, exile or execution.”

“In his Tenth, Shostakovich musically reflects his optimism, pessimism and realism without contradiction.”

Artistically, Execution of Stenka Razin fits Cassidy’s KSO mission. “You know, there are a lot of under-performed and/or unknown works out there by important composers that get little play, because either folks don’t wish to learn them or they see it as a programming risk since it is unknown.  

“The KSO has always tried to pair these works with the better known, to give both musicians and audience something new and engaging to experience and learn about.” 

Premiered in 1964 and based on a (grisly) poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, “It tells a story,” Burdette says. After leading Cossack and peasant armies in uprisings against the Shah of Persia and the nobility of Russia in the 17th century, Razin was executed in Moscow’s Red Square in 1671.

Stephanie Nash, conductor of the Northern Kentucky Community Chorus, explains what to listen for: “This symphonic poem is composed for orchestra, baritone and mixed chorus. The chorus plays the role of a Greek chorus, at times echoing the voice of the narrator and at others being the crowd gathered to witness the execution of Razin.

“There are several thematic motifs that recur throughout the piece. The dramatic elements come together in both the boisterous, energetic sections and the calm, chant-like sections.

“The audience should pay close attention to the text – it will draw the audience into the scene, as if they were a part of the crowd.”

“It’s unabashedly sardonic and visceral,” Cassidy adds. “One can’t help but believe that the subject matter together with Shostakovich’s in-your-face score echoes his sentiments against the Soviet system and its bloody and oppressive history.”

Razin will be sung in English.

Bass-baritone Kenneth Shaw teaches voice at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music and has been hailed for his "strong, impassioned and lyrical" voice (Opera News). He has performed with opera companies throughout North America to critical acclaim. He has sung over 70 leading roles in over 60 operas, as well as concerts and recitals around the world.

This season marks the 35th anniversary of the Northern Kentucky Community Chorus, which performs at least two concerts a year. Nash notes, “We have sung masterworks of many of the world's greatest composers over the years, but never this piece by Dmitri Shostakovich.

“This invitation to collaborate with the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra and the Voices of the Commonwealth gives us the opportunity to perform a piece that we would not otherwise perform on our own.

“By coincidence, one of the pieces on our May 15th program ties these two concerts together, as Britten and Shostakovich were friends, and Britten wrote the “Dmitri motif” into one of the choral sections of Rejoice in the Lamb.”

Founded in 2011 by Artistic Director Tony Burdette, Voices of the Commonwealth (an ensemble of the Northern Kentucky School of Music), is a 75-voice community chorus for adults in the region. It presents two concerts a year and collaborators include the KSO, the Disabled American Veterans National Headquarters, the Northern Kentucky Children's Ensemble, local veterans groups and churches.

Dunk the Dictator: On the way to the Greaves Concert Hall lobby, patrons can celebrate the Cincinnati Reds’ opening week by testing their throwing arms at the KSO’s “Dunk the Dictator” tank.  “A Stalin stand-in will perch precipitously above the frigid conditions to which the "Red Tsar" often subjected his countrymen and artists,” Cassidy promises.

Heads Will Roll, 7:30 p.m. April 9. Kentucky Symphony, Greaves Concert Hall, Fine Arts Center, Northern Kentucky University, Highland Heights. Tickets $35-$19, 18 and under half-price. (Plus processing and handling fees.) 859-431-6216 and www.kyso.org

Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts
Photo: KSO performs at Greaves Hall