Berkeley Symphony, guest conducted by Christian Reif, presents their final concert of the season Thursday night, with the 13th Symphony of Shostakovich, known as Babi Yar. It began as a single movement of a setting of a poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, an artistic monument commemorating a Nazi atrocity in Kiev. It expanded to a five movement work for orchestra, with a solo for bass voice and male chorus.
Over the course of two days in September of 1941, Nazis killed more than 30-thousand Jews from Ukraine’s capital of Kiev at the site of a ravine called Babi Yar. The horrific slaughter inspired the poem by Yevtushenko that subsequently inspired Shostakovich. “Yevtushenko was a young poet, but already quite established, quite famous,” Reif explains. “He went to Babi Yar, to the site of the massacre. And everyone knew about this, but it was kept very silent, of course by the Nazis, but also the Ukrainian government, and also the Soviet Union. And so when Yevtushenko went there and didn’t see a monument, he was completely horrified, and thought, ‘this can not be that there is no monument to let the world know what happened.’ Shostakovich read that poem, and thought ‘this is exactly what the world needs to know about.’ And he decided to set it to music.” Reif says he actually completed setting the poem before letting Yevtushenko know he was doing so. The piece grew to include other settings of his poems, which aim to bring to the surface aspects of history and daily life in the Soviet Union that had been obscured from view. “Both Yevteshenko and Shostakovich glorify artists, or activists, or just people who sacrifice their career in order to get the truth out,” says Reif. “It’s really important – especially now, but, I mean always to… to believe in the truth, and also stand up for it, and that’s what Yevteshenko and Shostakovich did.”