C1790. CHRISTOPHER KEENE Cond. Syracuse S.O.: Symphony #8 in c (Shostakovitch). (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-1011, Live Performance, 1975. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“This is Vol. 2 in St. Laurent Studio’s new Christopher Keene series, and unlike the label’s attention to major conductors like Beecham, Munch, Monteux, and Tennstedt in concert, Keene belongs among the ranks of the unsung and nearly forgotten. More volumes are in the works, at the urging of FANFARE's Henry Fogel, who ran the classical music radio station in Syracuse and produced the orchestra's broadcasts during the first three years of Keene's five-year tenure as music director, from 1975 to 1980.
It is startling to think of a community orchestra attempting either the Strauss ‘Symphonia Domestica’ or this Shostakovich Eighth Symphony, but half the rationale behind the Keene series is to showcase how remarkable the Syracuse Symphony was, entirely with professional musicians (it is now defunct, sadly). The other half is to provide Keene with the legacy he deserves. He died of AIDS-related cancer in 1995 at age 48, having left behind a small number of commercial recordings, so these from Syracuse, which capture the music in good, full-range stereo that balances ambience and orchestral detail very well, are invaluable.
I heard Keene in concert only once and came away unimpressed, yet here he displays unexpected depths. Fogel believes that this period was in some ways the finest musically in Keene’s career. He rose to become director of the New York City Opera, the post he held at his death, and yet the big time seemed to make Keene cowed, stiff, or nervous. Whatever the cause, I never expected what is present on this disc, arguably the most musical Shostakovich Eighth recorded by an American conductor. In part this is faute de mieux, because both Leonard Bernstein and James Levine avoided this masterpiece, but there were two notable recordings by André Previn (EMI and DG).
Those accounts deliver a level of orchestral execution beyond the Syracuse Symphony, naturally, given that Previn led the London Symphony both times. But Keene is more personally involving. He had confidence enough in his gifts that this performance comes from his debut as music director in Syracuse (on a program filled out by the suite from Copland’s THE TENDER LAND). He also had confidence in the orchestra built by Karl Kritz (1906–69). The string body is full, assured, and in tune, the vital woodwind solos played stylishly, the brass section sounding courageous and at times thrilling.
What Keene brings to the Shostakovich Eighth is an inwardness and sensitivity that isn’t typically heard in this score. I was struck by much the same quality when the young Vasily Petrenko recorded the Eighth with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in 2010 (Naxos), because the Soviet tradition, as exemplified by Yevgeny Mravinsky’s towering readings, essayed the music in terms of crushing tragedy and overwhelming power. Petrenko showed that there was another way, and yet here is Keene doing the same thing three decades earlier, and with an unknown orchestra. He shows not the slightest difficulty holding the listener’s attention in the style he has chosen.
The weight of tragedy is heaviest in the long first movement, but it also contains extended legato lines, which Keene leads with assured finesse, never allowing the melody to sag when the music is soft. For Russian performers the dark terrors of World War II linger in the background of the Shostakovich Eighth, but Keene’s reading is outside history, as is Petrenko’s. This gives him the freedom to find beauties in the score that are entrancing rather than constantly sad. But the great tutti climaxes are given full justice, too. What isn’t present in the first movement and the two Scherzos is the shriek of panic one hears from Mravinsky and Gergiev, for example.
The Eighth is Shostakovich’s most haunted score, inescapably overshadowed by death and suffering but also capable of expressing sorrow as elegy. This is most apparent in the first movement’s long English horn solo, here played very expressively and fully at a professional level. There is a letdown at the opening of the second Scherzo, however, because of a weak piccolo line and a momentary lapse of concentration, it would appear, on the conductor’s part, but the movement quickly rights itself.
Keene is in his element in the fourth and fifth movements, which are shattered by some anguished outcries but mostly contain Shostakovich’s most spectral, at times enigmatic, writing. This is where the Eighth Symphony transcends every other one of the fifteen, achieving something like a sadness too deep for tears that at the same time touches redemption. Needless to say, this is abstract, not programmatic music, but the air of mystery is unmistakable.
I realize that the discography of the Shostakovich Eighth is deep and rich, but if you look on this CD as a ticket to a live concert, I think the listening experience is genuinely enjoyable and moving.”
- Huntley Dent, FANFARE
“There were few jobs around an opera house that Christopher Keene did not do superlatively well. A magnificent conductor, in particular of 20th-century works, and a successful administrator, he also composed, wrote libretti, directed and, in his younger days, prepared singers with missionary zeal.
At New York City Opera, first as music director then, after the retirement of Beverley Sills, as general director, he made an indelible mark on the city's musical life, but his influence extended far beyond New York City, to the Spoleto Festival, both in Italy and the United States; and to all the numerous other opera companies and orchestras that he worked with over the last 25 years, and to whom he communicated his own passionate interest in contemporary opera. He learnt how to conduct as he went along. Instead of finishing his university course, in 1969 he became the first Julius Rudel Fellow, in the New York City Opera's training scheme, helping to prepare operas such as Janacek's MAKROPULOS CASE for its first New York performance. By that time Keene had already become associated with the Spoleto Festival in Italy, of which he was music director from 1976 to 1980. He was asked by Menotti to conduct THE SAINT OF BLEECKER STREET there in 1968. Back in New York, he made his conducting debut with NYCO in 1970 with Ginastera's DON RODRIGO and his Metropolitan debut the following year with CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA and PAGLIACCI. He then ran a summer festival at Chautauqua and conducted for Syracuse Opera and various other organisations.
In 1973 he made his Covent Garden debut conducting MADAMA BUTTERFLY; in 1974 he conducted a RING cycle at Artpark, Lewiston; and from 1977 to 1980 he worked for the American Spoleto Festival at Charleston, South Carolina. He wrote the libretto for Stephen Douglas Burton's THE DUCHESS OF MALFI, an adaptation of Webster's tragedy, and conducted the premiere at Wolf Trap Farm, Vienna, West Virginia, in 1978.
Keene finally returned to the City Opera as musical director in 1983. He conducted Philip Glass' AKHNATEN the following year, and recorded Glass' SATYAGRAHA with the City Opera forces in 1985. In 1988 he conducted the premiere of Jay Reise's RASPUTIN. The following year he became general director of the company. Since then NYCO has gained enormously in reputation, offering New York its first staged performance of MOSES UND ARON and its local premieres of Zimmerman's DIE SOLDATAN and Busoni's DR FAUSTUS.
During its 50th anniversary season in 1993 the City Opera staged three premieres of American operas in October: Ezra Laderman's MARILYN, Lukas Foss' GRIFFELKIN and Hugo Weisgall's ESTHER. These were not conducted by Keene himself, whose personal contribution to the anniversary season was the New York premiere of Tippett's MIDSUMMER MARRIAGE. In June 1994 Keene conducted the premiere of Dominick Argento's DREAM OF VALENTINO for Washington Opera and in May was to be found in Berlin, conducting the first performance of Joost Meier's DREYFUS – ‘DIE AFFARE’ at the Deutsche Oper.
However, his first commitment was to the City Opera, whose 1995 fall season he opened on 7 September conducting a new production of Hindemith's MATHIS DER MALER. Running an opera company, as he once said, ‘was what I was born to do’.”
- Elizabeth Forbes, THE INDEPENDENT, 12 Oct., 1995