First-rate Performances For Salastina’s ‘Second Class Citizens’


The title of last Saturday night’s Salastina Society program was a tellingly double-edged one. Called “Second Class Citizens,” the program’s name resonated as much for composers marginalized from the grand narrative of musical history as for the present-day concern for those peoples who live and work in the midst of our society, yet remain unseen by those in power. Fair enough. But the lengths that Kevin Kumar, Salastina Society co-founder and artistic director, stretched the truth in some of his spoken remarks about the music being performed, presumably in order to heighten their relevance for today’s audiences, made it awfully difficult to not ostentatiously roll one’s eyes and let out an exasperated “Oh, puh-leese!”

Was Felix Mendelssohn a heartless mansplainer who used his male privilege to suppress and even steal the work of his talented sister Fanny? Not quite, to put it mildly. Was Bohuslav Martinů on the “spectrum?” Scholarship is undecided on this matter, but it is worth noting that the composer’s diagnosis of autism was not made until fifty years after his passing.

Nevertheless, the music was the thing here and in this respect the choice of music—as well as the superlative performances by the members of the Salastina Society—were superlative in their musicianship and sense of proportion.

And in some cases, the men really did behave badly.

Consider the case of Rebecca Clarke. Last year’s performance of a selection of her work by Le Salon de Musiques was an eye-opening one and the Salastina Society’s offering of the first movement of her “Sonata for Viola and Piano” was no less revelatory.

Possessing a passionate and highly distinctive idiom, there is no doubt that had she been a man her career would have been firmly etched into the annals of musical history. Instead, she had only a fleeting brush with fame and spent most of her later years in depression and artistic silence. As one heard the music of this ardent and powerful score pour out, one could only bitterly regret the profound loss that the world of music suffered in the stifling of her art.

Other composers on the program were forgotten for more mundane reasons.

A movement from the Polish-Russian composer Mieczysław Weinberg’s “Piano Quintet, Op. 18” brought that clearly, if uncomfortably to attention.

Fleeing the Nazi blitzkrieg in his native Poland, he adopted the Soviet Union as his new home, only to fall victim to the persecution of the Jews there in the wake of the “Doctors’ Plot” in the waning days of the Stalin regime. Despite what he endured he was by all accounts the rare human being that behaved decently in those troubled times, earning the friendship and respect of his older peer Dmitri Shostakovich.

So one finds themselves feeling sheepish when listening to his music. Because it is impossible to escape—certainly Weinberg never did—the shadow of Shostakovich that looms large over all his works. The same see-sawing minor seconds and spidery octaves that are the hallmark of the elder composer are all there. It is earnest and well-crafted music, yes, but its derivativeness cannot be ignored.

This may all sound like so many gripes, but the Salastina Society program was a success on the whole. Not only was did they assemble a thought-provoking program that was played with world-class polish, but they did what more classical music organizations ought to in their performances: Give the listener to something to think hard over even after the notes have long since vanished into silence.