of the hour: Shostakovich.
and His World
College, Aug. 22
This 11-concert festival allowed for a greater range of music
and opinion than usually is found when classical music is
the subject, and thus we were able to contrast one of Shostakovich’s
most appalling works with one of his most sublime.
Although sublime wouldn’t be the first adjective that springs
to mind when discussing the music of this difficult, controversial
composer: He’s difficult not in terms of accessibility—most
of his music is fraught with tuneful hooks that will grab
even the most casual listener—but in a historic/philosophical
context, making peace with a composer who evidently submitted
to the Stalin regime. Or did he?
The first panel discussion took on the subject of contested
accounts of Shostakovich’s career, and the final orchestral
concert, performed last Sunday, illustrated the contrast between
Shostakovich the Stalin-pleaser and the personal voice of
of the Forests is a 1949 work for chorus and orchestra
written to celebrate Stalin’s post-war reforestation project,
and a more hilariously bombastic work is hard to imagine.
The best comparison I can muster is to imagine overblown film-music
maestro John Williams penning a score to accompany a Soviet-era
thriller, inflating Mussorgsky-esque melodies with relentless
trumpets and drums.
When the piece was over, I was torn between cringing in embarrassment
and rushing out to join the Communist Party. But how wonderful
to hear such a piece so well performed! That’s the beauty
of this festival, provided you’re comfortable with the notion
that a negative reaction to the music qua music is
still a valid and important response.
And the whole thing was blown away by the Symphony No.
10, a work written after the death of Stalin and often
reputed to portray the great dictator in unflattering musical
terms. That may well be a whimsy on a par with the Dark
Side of the Moon-Wizard of Oz connection: It works
if you want it to, but no intent has been definitively established.
What is known is that Shostakovich musically rendered
the name of a younger inamorata and thematically twined it
with a musical motto based on his own name during the third
movement, so he clearly was clever with such subtexts.
Thanks to a festival like this and their imaginatively programmed
regular season, the American Symphony Orchestra has the privilege
of playing works on the fringes of the repertory. Music director
Leon Botstein does a consistently remarkable job of establishing
fascinating contexts for these works, and the orchestra is
of such high caliber that they were able to put together a
brilliantly nuanced performance of all three works on the
program (the first was Shostakovich’s forgettable but historically
significant symphonic poem October), really coming
into their own for the symphony.
The string sound is rich and lusty, the kind of quality you
expect from a group that performs much more regularly. In
the Sosnoff Theater, the lively new concert hall at Bard College,
they sounded astonishing. I only wished for more brass sound
to balance it—after Song of the Forests, the section
was trimmed of some players and I missed both the volume and
texture of the larger configuration.
Dominating the day’s earlier concert of chamber works was
Shostakovich’s final composition, his Viola Sonata, hauntingly
played by Kim Kashkashian with the excellent Lydia Artymiw
as pianist. Like much of the composer’s later works, it’s
a spare but characteristic piece that winds through an emotional
aria and sardonic scherzo into a final adagio written “In
Memory of the Great Beethoven,” a mediation on the opening
movement of that composer’s Moonlight Sonata—and it’ll
tear you to pieces. Kashkashian and Artymiw imposed no phony
emotion but relied on the music itself to be so deeply affecting.
In contrast was a series of works by younger Russian composers,
most of them showing an obvious debt to Shostakovich, one
of them—Edison Denisov—doing his best to be the anti-Shostakovich.
Denisov’s The Sun of the Incas is a 1964 work for soprano
and chamber ensemble; the six movements alternate between
instrumental and vocal sections, the latter movingly sung
by soprano Courtenay Budd.
Works by Schnittke, Gubaidulina and Tischenko rounded out
the display of the ongoing debt to Shostakovich, excellently
performed by members of the orchestra as well as the Chiara
String Quartet, who added an inadvertent aleatory aspect to
the proceedings by truncating the Tischenko Quartet No.
1 to give their gravid first violinist a needed break.
Each of the concerts was preceded by an informative lecture
that I highly recommend during future events; there will be
more Shostakovich performed at Bard in November, and next
summer’s festival centers around Aaron Copland.