"Over Babi Yar there are no monuments," says the Russian text, written by Yevgeni Yevtushenko in 1961. "The steep precipice is like a crude gravestone." Since then, the Soviet government has erected a monument on the site where the Nazis began a systematic massacre of the Jews of Kiev in September 1941, but there is a significant omission. "When I went there in 1979," reported Jewish scholar Elie Wiesel, "there was a monument, but the word 'Jew' was not on it." To this day, Yevtushenko's poem and the 13th Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich, who set the words to music, are the most notable monument to the atrocity of Babi Yar.
The symphony was performed last night in the Kennedy Center as the climax of a special concert, sponsored jointly by the Jewish Community Council and the Sakharov International Committee, to mark the 41st anniversary of Babi Yar. It was a remarkable musical experience, but one whose meaning went far beyond that of a mere concert.
Wiesel, who is the chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, spoke briefly on the evening's significance. It was a troubled talk, overshadowed by the recent violence in Beirut, which thoughts of Babi Yar naturally bring to mind. Wiesel did not mention the canvassers who were stopping people on their way into the Concert Hall and asking them to support a coalition of Israeli groups that are working for a change of government and withdrawal from Lebanon. But they seemed to be on his mind. He peppered his talk with Hasidic proverbs commenting obliquely on the situation: "No heart is as whole as the broken heart," and "When you praise, praise God; when you blame, blame yourself."
"Our heart is broken," he said. "It hurts. I think we can take comfort from the fact that our hearts are broken everywhere -- in Israel and here."
The heartbreak was echoed in Shostakovich's symphony, which was revolutionary when he composed it in 1962, launching a stark, dramatic new style in his music, a shocking boldness (after a quarter-century of timidity) in the use of words and a thinly veiled defiance of the Soviet government. The music rumbles ominously, laughs on the brink of hysteria, mourns in low, sobbing, muted tones. At one point, it swaggers in a sort of triumphal march while the words suggest that the Russian people are rising above the fear of their government. And it falls into an almost ecclesiastical cadence at the end of one segment where the words speak of Russian women, waiting patiently in line to buy food, in a store warmed only by their breath, "clutching in their hands the hard-earned money."
"They have mixed concrete and plowed and reaped, they have endured everything, they will endure everything," says the text. "It is shameful to shortchange them. It is sinful to short-weigh them."
There was no shortchanging in last night's program, which was, if anything, a bit too long. Besides the Shostakovich work, it included Ernest Bloch's "Baal Shem," a work for violin and orchestra deeply rooted in the Hassidic music of Eastern Europe, which was played with great feeling by violinist Yuval Waldman -- like all the evening's soloists, a former Soviet citizen. The other soloists were bass Andrij Dobriansky of the Metropolitan Opera, who soloed eloquently in the Shostakovich, and soprano Renata Babak, one of the most exciting voices of our time, though she has been underemployed in the West since defecting from the Bolshoi Opera.
The Fairfax Symphony Orchestra and the men of the Alexandria Chorale performed under the baton of William Hudson. The Fairfax has developed a remarkable reputation among the nation's metropolitan orchestras (a technical term that means a low budget and a number of amateur players), and it fully justified that reputation last night in the Shostakovich symphony. The performance was powerful, precise and splendidly disciplined; if it was not quite on a par with the great orchestras of Chicago or Philadelphia, it was absolutely amazing from the Fairfax ensemble. The chorus, likewise, was not a virtuoso ensemble but well-prepared for this occasion. The evening had the special excitement that is generated when performers are surpassing their usual limitations and setting new standards for themselves.