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Man of the hour: Shostakovich.

A Full Portrait
By B.A. Nilsson

Shostakovich and His World
Bard 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 the composer.

Song 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.

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