Sounds of the Soviets take the stage at Mandel

Ani Aznavoorian and Lera Auerbach made their Chicago recital debut at Mandel Hall Friday.

By Katherine Stewart

Works of art created in times of extreme chaos and distress often hold great significance for audiences. The citywide Soviet Arts Experience, one of the largest interdisciplinary events ever held in Chicago, strives to showcase the works of artists struggling with the power of the Soviet Union. One such work came to the University this Friday night with the dual performance of Ani Aznavoorian and Lera Auerbach, who made their Chicago recital debut with the music of Shostakovich. The 11th out of 50 performances for this series was held at Mandel Hall. Featuring pieces from both Shostakovich and Auerbach herself, the two Russian musical geniuses successfully enlivened the faint-hearted spirit of the striving Soviet arts.

Ani Aznavoorian’s charisma and the energy with which she played the cello created a blissful experience for the audience. Her brilliant tone matched the unmistakable vibrancy of her purple and yellow gown. The flawless techniques applied to the music made her talent and tenor look easy to mimic. Aznavoorian made even ponticello bowing (a musical style in which the musician produces relatively displeasing sounds by awkwardly brushing the strings near the bridge) a delightful, ear-friendly experience. Her playful manner engaged the audience with every one of her slight, giddy bounces or dramatic nods.

Aznavoorian’s faultless glissandos within the second movement of Shostakovich’s sonata were enthralling: Her sliding against the strings looked playful, yet sounded deliberate and melodious. She easily reminded me of the well-loved Jacqueline du Pré, who enticed the world with her vast talent on the cello and her sparkling free spirit. Both performers exhibited sheer charisma that invited all to love them and the music they shared.

Throughout this performance, Auerbach was in no way a mere accompanist on the piano. She made her presence an authoritative necessity that constantly commanded the audience’s attention. Auerbach’s collaboration with Aznavoorian empowered Shostakovich’s and her own enigmatic and distinctive creations. They were considerate of each other in every aspect; Aznavoorian, despite her role as the vibrant soloist, lowered her sound so that Auerbach’s keys would prevail in certain phrases, and vice versa. They acted as one musician simultaneously embodying the same passionate stylistic techniques. Despite Shostakovich’s style, which was heavily critiqued in a time when freedom was stifled, Aznavoorian and Auerbach interpreted his Cello Sonata in D minor with an escapee’s delight.

Auerbach’s 24 creations held their ground next to Shostakovich and even grew into something absolutely outstanding. She invited us to truly experience her music and “explore our own kaleidoscopic time with its madness, loneliness, brutality, and aching nostalgia for lost harmony and innocence.”

The fiery performance reflected Aznavoorian’s description of the music: It was “very in-your-face, humorous even.” In one of the latter movements of her 24 Preludes, Auerbach prolonged a trill, causing many members of the audience to chuckle in response to her exuberance. But despite its lighthearted nature, Auerbach assured the audience that “the music never turns into slapstick.” The power she upheld within the performance displayed the highest authority within the broad, humorous mood. Even coughs and sneezes were suppressed for this performance (a feat not duplicated at many other musical performances).

With much graciousness, both artists took time out of the performance to introduce themselves and their works. Even though a hearing aid and a cell phone disturbed the performance, Auerbach and Aznavoorian expressed much humility in the matter—their smiles at the situations made them seem more genial to the audience.

Of all the Shostakovich performances in this arts series, Aznavoorian and Auerbach definitely created one to be remembered. The experience of amiable artists playing contorted, dissonant tones formed an unforgettable juxtaposition. And through enthralling performances such as this, the Soviet arts will live on for decades to come.