Anti-Semitism never came up against a more determined foe than Dmitri Shostakovich. This Gentile composer had an instinctive and lifelong aversion to that mindset, so prevalent in his Russian homeland.
He also had an uncanny appreciation for Jewish music, its ambiguities and "ability to project radically different emotions simultaneously," to quote Shostakovich scholar Laurel E. Fay.
So when he came across a collection of Jewish folk poems published in Russian translation in 1948, Shostakovich could set them to music that was thoroughly his own, yet extraordinarily idiomatic. The resulting song cycle, From Jewish Folk Poetry, is at the center of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's latest, meaty program.
In evoking Jewish melodic and harmonic inflections, the cycle creates a soundscape as authentic as it is touching. In particular, the songs about sorrow and poverty, death and alienation find Shostakovich once again laying bare his own heart, as he did in so many symphonies, concertos and chamber works.
The composer thought the accessible, folk-style songs would be perfectly acceptable to Soviet authorities. He hadn't counted on Stalin's ruthless campaign to eliminate the country's Jews, a campaign that began in earnest just as From Jewish Folk Poetry was ready to be premiered.
That premiere had to be delayed until after Stalin's death, when it couldn't help but take on added significance. In a world still swimming in anti-Semitic sentiment, this work (absurdly under-appreciated in the West) seems more important than ever.
In a pointed gesture, Yuri Temirkanov will include the cycle on a single stop during the BSO's upcoming European tour - in Austria, where neo-Fascism recently has gained ground.
Thursday evening at Meyerhoff Hall, Temirkanov led a deeply considered performance that caught the diverse shadings in the song cycle - poignant lullabies, superficially cheery odes to collective farming, an endearing bit of boasting at the end.
Soprano Oksana Krovytska sounded raw at times, but phrased with great intensity; her long-held note at the end of Song of the Girl was most effective. Tenor Vsevolod Grivnov offered abundant tone and expressive heat. Marietta Simpson, filling in on very short notice for an ailing colleague, produced a deep, Russian-sized mezzo that richly served the melancholy elements in the score. The BSO did careful, colorful work; soloists within the ensemble offered stylish contributions.
Where Shostakovich gathered inspiration from Jewish folk poetry, Dvorak gathered it from the spirit, if not the actual notes, of American folk music in his Symphony No. 9, From the New World. But it's still a Czech score at heart, which is how it sounded Thursday as Temirkanov stressed its lyrical ideas in particularly vivid fashion.
The strings were as lush as ever; most of the wind playing had polish and panache. Jane Marvine's English horn solo sang out warmly.
The rather small crowd also heard an amiable account of Brahms' Academic Festival Overture. Temirkanov gave the opening rumbles extra attention, so the eventual outburst of good cheer seemed all the more welcome.
What: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.
When: 3 p.m. tomorrow
Tickets: $26 to $68