In “Shostakovich and the Black Monk: A Russian Fantasy,” Philip Setzer, violinist of the Emerson String Quartet, and author/ director James Glossman have created a theater piece that is greater than the sum of its imposing parts. The far-reaching production encompasses an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s 1894 story “The Black Monk,” a concert by the Emersons, and a dramatization of the uncertain life of composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 to 1975), who never knew whether Soviet Union dictator Joseph Stalin would praise his works or ban them.
While Shostakovich had wanted to write an opera based on Chekhov’s “Black Monk” story, he never did — in large part because he was concerned about its reception and Stalin’s reaction. But Setzer is convinced that the composer planned the unwritten work in great detail.
Now, years later, 11 performers are bringing a fully staged multi-media production to Princeton. That includes the quartet — violinists Setzer and Eugene Drucker, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins — and seven actors. Len Cariou, Broadway’s original Sweeney Todd, and stage and television actor J. O. Sanders perform the roles of Shostakovich and Stalin, respectively. Ali Breneman, Alex Glossman, Evelyn McGee-Colbert, Paul Murphy, and Linda Setzer play a myriad of roles.
The performance takes place at Thursday, September 28, at 8 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium and opens the Princeton University Concerts season.
The Princeton production is part of a series of performances at venues reflecting the institutions that co-commissioned the work: the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival in Michigan, Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts, and Princeton University Concerts. It also features most of the same performers who appeared in its premiere in June in Detroit.
In a telephone interview from his South Orange, New Jersey, home, Setzer describes the production and its origin. “The actors are trying to tell the ‘Black Monk’ story and the Emersons are trying to play Shostakovich’s 14th String Quartet,” he says. “Both groups keep getting interrupted. Despite disruptions, the ensemble plays the quartet in its entirety. Similarly, the actors play out the entire ‘Black Monk’ story in spite of Stalin’s meddling.
“I had wanted to do something about Shostakovich, music, and theater ever since [the Emersons] started playing the Shostakovich Quartets in the mid 1980s,” says Setzer. “I always thought there was something innately theatrical about the quartets.”
The Emersons’ connection to Shostakovich is long standing. They were one of the first quartets to play the Shostakovich cycle and recorded the 15 string quartets in the late 1990s.
“When Setzer first approached me about collaborating on a music-theater piece I was immediately intrigued,” says writer Glossman. “I am deeply moved by Shostakovich’s quartets, and I remembered Chekhov’s ‘Black Monk’ tale [as] a seductively gothic atmosphere luring a promising academic into delusion and madness,” says the author and director of more than 200 plays, a John Hopkins University theater faculty member, and director of the theater program at Far Brook School in Short Hills, New Jersey.
Acutely aware of the striking parallels of the fictional tension between Chekhov’s “Black Monk” and a young scholar and the true life conflict between Shostakovich and Stalin, Setzer says Glossman “has interwoven two stories. I always thought that the two elements could be interwoven, but I couldn’t imagine how anybody could be smart enough to do it.”
The Setzer/Glossman theater piece also plays with the idea that the figures in the story are the same and struggle against the same fear: mediocrity. The connection is strengthened by musical parallels. The Chekhov story refers to 19th-century Italian composer Gaetano Braga’s “The Angel’s Serenade.” Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 14 uses a similar pattern and quotes that same piece.
Setzer says the proof that Shostakovich planned an opera can be in his unpublished compositions. “I discovered that he [Shostakovich] had made an arrangement of the Braga, which he clearly intended to incorporate into his opera,” Setzer says.
In the Princeton performance soprano Ali Breneman and the Emersons perform the Braga piece.
Setzer believers it was Stalin’s condemnation of Shostakovich’s 1934 opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” that caused the composer to delay writing the “Black Monk” opera — and fear for his life.
Although he lived more than 20 years beyond Stalin’s death in 1953, Shostakovich’s ill health also may have prevented his writing the “Black Monk.” “He had the opera in his head, but he was too ill to write it,” says Setzer. “Shostakovich’s neurological ailments impeded his physical capacity to write. He was strong enough to notate a string quartet, but too weak to write an opera.”
“It’s not documented, but I’m convinced that some of the music in Shostakovich’s 14th String Quartet consisted of the vision in his head for the unwritten opera,” Setzer says. “There are also some swirling passages in Shostakovich’s 15th String Quartet, which we play in the theater piece as the Black Monk appears (and) that he would have included in an opera.”
As a performing string quartet, the Emersons have logged an exceptional record of both stability and adventure. The ensemble dates from 1976. After 34 years with no personnel changes, cellist Paul Watkins joined the ensemble in 2013, the Emersons’ 37th season.
Incorporating novelty in performance, the ensemble was one of the first quartets to alternate roles for its two violinists, rather than designating a permanent first violinist. Moreover, their habit of standing to perform — except for the cellist — was a departure from standard practice.
The quartet broke new ground in performing and recording pieces that are no longer a novelty. They played all six Bela Bartok string quartets in a single evening as early as 1981, and started playing Shostakovich string quartets in the mid 1980s.
In 2016 Universal Music Group reissued the Emersons’ entire Deutsche Grammophon recordings in a 52-CD boxed set. In April the Emersons released music of English composers, 20th-century Benjamin Britten and 17th-century Henry Purcell, for the first disc to be recorded on Universal Music Classics’ new US Classical label, Decca Gold, with whom they have a new recording contract. The album is titled “Chaconnes and Fantasias.”
The ensemble is in residence at State University of New York at Stony Brook, where Setzer and Dutton are fulltime faculty members.
“We’re always looking for new projects,” says Setzer. “[Conductor/composer] Andre Previn is writing a piece for us based on a Tom Stoppard script that involves [soprano and past collaborator] Renee Fleming.” It is due to appear in the summer of 2019.
Shostakovich and the Black Monk, a Russian Fantasy, Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall, Princeton University. Thursday, September 28, 8 p.m. $10 to $40.
Ticket holders can also attend a 6:15 p.m. discussion about Chekhov’s “The Black Monk” with Ellen Chances, Princeton University professor of Slavic languages and literatures, at the Nassau Presbyterian Church; have the opportunity to receive a 15 percent discount when purchasing the book at Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street; and participate in a post-performance talk back conversation with Princeton University professor and 20th century Russian music historian Simon Morrison, violinist Setzer, and writer/director Glossman. 609 258-9220 or www.princetonuniversityconcerts.org.