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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Concert Review: The Siege of Broad Street

Vladimir Jurowski conducts the Leningrad Symphony.
Leading the charge: conductor Vladimir Jurowski.
Photo by Roman Gontcharov.

In 2011, the Philadelphia Orchestra labors under the prospect of planned cuts to the members' salaries and to their roster. On Friday afternoon, the beleaguered ensemble played a work written in even worse circumstances: the Seventh ("Leningrad") Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich. Vladimir Jurowski conducted.

Mr. Jurowski is a second-generation maestro, a member of the "baton pack" of 30 and 40-something young conductors who have reinvigorated the world of classical music with fresh ideas and enthusiasm for this music. He led a razor-sharp account of this tricky work, making the repeated passages of interest and tying the themes together to recreate the sounds of a frozen battlefield in the concert hall.

Shostakovich composed the first three movements of the Leningrad Symphony as the Nazis marched on the city and settled in for a 900-day siege. Eventually, the composer and his family fled to the temporary Soviet capital of Kuibyshev, (Samara)  where he work had its world premiere. The Seventh was a smash success, and received its U.S. premiere in Philadelphia, conducted by Arturo Toscanini.

That premiere was at the venerated Academy of Music. For this one, at the nearby and much newer Kimmel Center, the performance opened with the rich, characteristic string tone that is a Philadelphia trademark. Dark, lush sonorities evoked the landscape of a happy, peaceful Russia. Maybe the music is a bit idyllic here--after all, Stalin was in power, but this is Shostakovich painting his homeland as a worker's paradise.

The "invasion" is the work's most famous section, 12 repetitions of a simple theme, based on Fritz Lehar's The Merry Widow (a favorite of the opera-loving Hitler). It starts imperceptibly anchored by the rat-a-tat of a gradually approaching snare drum. (Shostakovich's model here was Ravel's Bolero.) Mr. Jurowski maintained strict control of the dynamics, increasing the volume wih each variation until the sound of the 16-piece brass section echoed the cannon-fire of Russia under siege. A mournful bassoon solo followed, depicting the aftermath.

In the doleful second movement, the Philadelphia woodwinds moved to the fore, with a gorgeous oboe solo before the start of a second ostinato of smaller dimension than the first. A lyric slow movement followed. Meant to depict the vast white reaches of the country around Leningrad, the idyll was interrupted briefly by klaxon-like sounds from the orchestra that raised the alarm once more.

Shostakovich looked into the future with his finale, depiciting the Russians kicking the Germans out and celebrating victory. Shostakovich's model here is Sibelius' Second Symphony, which has a similar prognostication. (In the work by the Finnish composer, it is the Russians who invade, then have their eventual defeat predicted.) 

The "Victory" ends with what might be the most stirring chord in symphonic repertory. It is certainly the loudest. The trombones rose to their feet and the huge band played at full strength, hovering just around the pain threshold for the ear in a blazing triumph of sound. As the mighty Philadelphians depicted these historical events one hopes that forthcoming cuts to the orchestra will not deprive their audience of future performances on such a massive scale.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.