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Wheeling Symphony Orchestra Music Director John Devlin speaks about the life and work of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich Monday at Wheeling Park High School.

Although classical music and opera may seem remote from the modern mentality, the Festival of Ideas aims to bring performances to life with a modern understanding of the work and the lives of those who write them.

Panelists discussed the lives of composers Dmitri Shostakovich, Florence Price and Richard Wagner during a Monday morning discussion at Wheeling Park High School, where Park and John Marshall High School students were bussed.

Wheeling Symphony Orchestra Music Director John Devlin, Rabbi Joshua Lief of Temple Shalom, YWCA Wheeling Program Director Ron Scott Jr. and Deputy Conductor Antoine Clark spoke about the lives of composers, the discrimination Price was confronted as a black woman in early 20th century America, the persecution of Shostakovich by Josef Stalin’s government, the shadow Wagner’s work would cast on German identity after her eventual association with the Nazis .

According to Bryan Braunlich, Executive Director of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra, the goal was to intersect the composers’ personal lives and experiences with the social climate of the modern era.

“(It’s about) shedding light on what it means for their lives, in relation to the socio-political events of the time,” Braunlich said.

Price, born in Arkansas in 1887, was a musical prodigy with degrees in organ performance and another in piano pedagogy, whose career struggled due to racism and sexism in her life, although his work has seen a revival in recent years. Scott, who admitted his musical tastes lay more in hip hop and R&B than classical symphonies, told the assembled students that Price’s struggles still resonated with him.

“When you first walk in, when you’re first introduced, you start to categorize how different this all is to you – ‘How could I identify with classical music?’ She’s a woman, she’s black, all those things that make her too different,” he said. who continues to excel.

“Although the things she had to persevere on were… things like the lynching mobs, like being so light-skinned that she could pass for another race, those are things that I personally cannot relate to. . But I can relate to things like not being believed by people who are supposed to like you, having peers who question or judge the things you’re passionate about, having someone look you in the face and tell you you can’t. doing something your heart is bound to do – these are the things that allow you to relate to this music far more than just having a piano played for you.

Lief took the opposite approach, urging students to look around the room and recognize the differences between people who nevertheless come together to participate in a unified society, unlike the homogeneous society sought by the Nazis, using the music of Wagner as an ideal. Lief went further, contrasting the “impossible genius” of Wagner’s work as a composer against the impossible society his work was used to propel, and invites listeners to confront the beauty of Wagner’s music with the grotesque of his ideals.

“These worldviews should make us feel uncomfortable living today, it should make us feel disconnected. It should cause us problems with Wagner,” Lief said. “If we want to enjoy the beauty of the music itself, we have to wrestle with the person who wrote it and the worldview he was trying to present. If it gives us the opportunity to talk about it and think about it, then it’s worth it.

Devlin, who is a scholar of Shostakovich, described the composer’s work as a rebellion against the demand for “patriotic” music, derived from Russian folk songs and music with militaristic themes. Faced with increasingly strict restrictions on what constitutes acceptable music, Shostakovich turned to opera, which allowed greater freedom of expression of his opinions satirizing the state police department in “The Nose” and “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, which was harshly criticized in state media. in an article sometimes attributed to Stalin, and which was banned in Russia for decades.

“Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony, which is about to be premiered, is being removed from the stands by the musicians as they rehearse it to give it its first life,” Devlin said. “Instead, because he knew it was dangerous to create the 4th Symphony as it was then, he wrote the 5th Symphony, which is the piece we will perform on Friday.

“The 5th Symphony, Shostakovich knows, is a moment of life or death for him as a person and for his artistic career. He titled this symphony “A Soviet artist’s response to fair criticism”. … He does this to make sure Stalin authorizes the premiere, and the play is incredibly powerful. The first movement, of the four, is a poignant image of Soviet artistic life at the time.

The Music as History from East to West event will be presented Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Capitol Theater. The event is free for students who attended the panel, with a discount for accompanying adults. The symphony orchestra will perform Price’s Concert Overture no. 2, Wagner’s overture Der Fliegende Höllander (Flying Dutchman) and Symphony no. 5.

– This is an alternate quote that might go under Lief’s bit. I wasn’t sure what I liked best, so your calling. —

“The question for us who live today is that Wagner’s music is incredibly beautiful – which it is, musically – but the person who wrote it and the themes it espouses are impossible because this society does not doesn’t exist,” Lief said. “He writes about the German myth brought to life on stage, a perfect world where everything is as it should be.

“But that’s not the reality. The real world is diverse, the real world is confusing, the real world is chaotic, and so Wagner’s music is either a tonic that helps us return to a dream vision of what the world would be ‘if only the world were pure and homogeneous, or Wagner’s opportunity for us to reflect on a world that is in fact diverse, and in fact has many variations, and which some argue that diversity makes us richer and stronger in the process.

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