This week I have been involved in performances of Shostakovich's 13th Symphony, Babi Yar, a terrific, robust, heart-rending and occasionally comic piece reflecting the social climate of 1960s Russia. On this occasion I have been working with Philharmonia Voices, providing the chorus of low men's voices that the piece demands and working alongside the phenomenal Philharmonia Orchestra and their Conductor Laureate Vladimir Ashkenazy.
Working with musicians of Ashkenazy's stature is a considerable perk of my job. One of the indisputably great pianists of the twentieth century, Ashkenazy was also caught up in the difficulties of living and working in cold war Soviet Russia. During rehearsals he told us that he was 'almost' at the first performance of this overtly anti-establishment symphony and that, when he did get to hear the second performance of the piece in 1962, they had 'changed the words'. These words (we are giving the original version) include unvarnished descriptions of people queuing for food in the cold, something that he told us he had seen.
The early 1960s must have been a decisive period for Ashkenazy, who married, shared first prize in the International Tchaikovsky Competition and then finally left Russia. The music cannot fail to carry indelible and highly emotional associations for the artist, for the man. I wondered as I was singing in the first of two performances at the Brighton Festival (notable in itself, as this year's Festival, curated by Vanessa Redgrave, is a celebration grouped loosely around art 'that speaks for those who do not or who cannot speak for themselves') whether the audience could still find something recognisable in it, let alone useful or comforting. It occurred to me that the piece was fulfilling its purpose rather like a record of what had happened, that the music and its text carries - largely through its own emotional weight - some authentic snapshot of the time.
This is the value of having a great musician directing. Not only that the audience get an aesthetic experience of the highest order. Not only that the younger musicians involved have direct experience of elite and obscure technical tid bits in the process. Even more than that, what becomes available is a window to the crucible whence the music comes, its genesis, its importance. On this occasion we have had a double gift of that authenticity in both artist and man - and, crucially, via the professionalism of the former and the selflessness of the latter. The message is there to be heard but only via the humility of great musicianship is the music is able to do the speaking.