Truth in Our Time: Great Music Speaks to What Our World Needs Most
National Arts Centre Orchestra, Blake Pouliot, Philip Glass: Review
In a society that has been shattered by divisive opinions on such topics as economics, identity, religion, personal rights and freedoms, climate change, race and racism, entitlement, ageism, ableism, ethics, sexual identity, patriotism, the value of education, the sources of “knowledge” and a hundred other points of potential conflict that can and do arise at any dinner table, on any plane trip and in any grocery checkout line, only one prospect holds out much hope for a general return to sanity: We need to restore widespread respect for facts, knowledge and truth, and agreement on what constitutes reliable information sources. It hasn’t been that many years since we believed that facts were easily accessible and irrefutable (and, if they weren’t accessible, that we knew where to find them), but right now reaching any kind of common ground on a host of volatile issues with our friends and relatives, much less our political leaders, seems nothing but a pipe dream.
With passion and intelligence, Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) has taken up this issue in a touring production that it has named “Truth in Our Time.” It is a powerful program: half way through it, I found myself considering, deeply and with dread, the vital relevance of truth to the existential problems facing us today, and the need for discussion of this subject via every means at our disposal – including through the arts.
Originally I had taken my N95 mask and gone to Roy Thomson Hall to hear this concert for one reason only: it featured the world premiere of Philip Glass’s Symphony Number 13. I have been a Philip Glass fan for many years and his Akhnaten (Best Opera Recording Grammy, 2022) remains a highlight of my Metropolitan Opera experience (which is extensive, thanks to the cooperative venture that regularly brings MetOpera productions to my local Cineplex).
The new Glass symphony was commissioned by the family of the highly regarded ABC news anchor Peter Jennings, in his memory. I was intrigued to learn how a composer would pay musical tribute to a man who had specialized in words.
As it turned out, the Glass symphony was not the only work on offer. The NACO had a bigger agenda. Much bigger. There were four pieces, united by the theme that is expressed in the concert’s title. Given, well… everything … “Truth in Our Time” seemed an auspicious term, a much-to-be-desired goal for what reaches us inside the news cycle and beyond it. A play on the words “Peace in Our Time” (another concept that seems to have left the building), it seemed a very large topic for one concert, but NACO did not let us down.
The first work, Nicole Lizée’s Zeiss After Dark, was brief: a two-minute “concert opener” co-commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and NACO in 2017. Zeiss draws inspiration and material from a host of dramatic and musical sources and from the sounds she find around her — from “turntablism” to the clapping hands of the performers. To describe her work as “unusual” would be an understatement but it had a mesmerizing appeal that demanded full attention. As I listened and watched, I shed the remaining vestiges of the world outside Roy Thomson Hall and focused on what I was hearing from the stage.
Symphony Number 9 in E-Flat Major, Op. 70 by Dmitry Shostakovich was next. NACO Music Director Alexander Shelley explained that Shostakovich had written the symphony for the Leningrad Philharmonic, where it premiered in 1945. The work was expected by its official audience (the Communist Party) to be a “heroic victory symphony,” one that would celebrate the triumph of the Soviet people over Nazism. But Shostakovich had no interest in offering a paean to the oppressive and murderous regime of Joseph Stalin and instead of a sombre, uplifting, patriotic piece, he wrote a lighthearted work: the NACO program calls aspects of it “jaunty,” “off-kilter” and “darkly humorous.” Shostakovich was basically thumbing his nose at the expectations of those in power, and his message (which we might call “the truth”) was not missed: after its first few performances, Symphony Number 9 and all of Shostakovich’s other works were banned from performance in the Soviet Union; they remained that way until after Stalin died in 1955.
I loved the passion the NACO put into the Shostakovich symphony — I thought the concertmaster was going to launch himself right out of his chair during some of the more enthusiastic violin sequences. More importantly perhaps, I had begun to consider the complex relationships that might be nurtured between music and the truth.
After the Intermission
The life of the composer Erich Korngold was also dramatically impacted by World War II. A child prodigy who became famous as a classical composer when he was still quite young, Korngold was invited to score his first Hollywood film in 1934 when he was 37. This led to more invitations and when the Nazis came to power in 1939, Korngold — a Jew — fled Vienna with his family and settled permanently in Hollywood. There, he became one of the earliest and most influential film composers, writing the scores for such movies as Captain Blood (1935), Antony Adverse (1936, Best Score Oscar) and the 1939 production of The Adventures of Robin Hood.
The first work Korngold composed after the war had ended was Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35, and this is the work NACO chose as the next piece for its “Truth in Our Time” concert. The premier of the concerto occurred in 1947 with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, featuring Jascha Haifetz as soloist.
We didn’t have Haifetz but we were treated to an electrifying performance by young violin wizard Blake Pouliot, a Canadian I am proud to say, and possibly the most talented and energetic young violinist I have ever had the pleasure to watch and hear. Pouliot seemed to be having so much fun, even between his solos, that I think the joy I felt at listening to this concerto was as much empathic pleasure for the violinist as it was the soaring of my own spirits with the music.
After a lengthy standing ovation, Pouliot, Shelley and the orchestra brought us back to reality with a lovely work based on the Ukrainian National Anthem. The dramatic contrast could not have been more stark between the joyous music, the beautiful peaceful setting where it was being played, and all of us Torontonians happy to be out after a long hard winter, and the scenes of murder and destruction that we’ve all recently witnessed in news reports from Kiev and Mariupol. That Putin and his barbarous henchmen claim that any rapes and murders by Russians in Ukraine are nothing but “fake news” just underscores the proximity of our world to the one in which Shostakovich and Korngold were immersed as they composed the works we heard.
Philip Glass: Symphony Number 13
The pinnacle of the evening, Glass’s new symphony, lived up to its promise and my days of eager anticipation. Restive with the Philip Glass brand of sound which always makes me feel as though he is deliberately moving me from one level of experience to another, I found as I listened to the symphony that I was reflecting on the regard in which Peter Jennings was held — among his many other achievements, he was a trusted man who gave us comfort, largely because what he told us was the truth. This awareness underscored for me the perfection of the theme and title of the evening’s concert.
“Truth in Our Time” focused my attention on the ways in which truth is missing from so many of our debates, arguments and even conversations. “Fake news” and “alternative truths” contribute nothing to problem solving, and we have many problems. We have created a world that makes progress impossible: a new Tower of Babel in which everyone talks in different tongues, even when we’re speaking the same languages.