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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Concert Review: Two Sides of Shostakovich

The Houston Symphony opens Spring for Music.
by Paul Pelkonen
Propaganda poster commemorating the massacre of 1905.
On Monday night, Hans Graf and the Houston Symphony kicked off the 2012 Spring for Music Festival at Carnegie Hall with a pair of pieces by Dmitri Shostakovich. The concert offered contrast between Shostakovich as a satirist who locked scores away in his composing desk and the composer in his "official" capacity, celebrating the unsuccessful revolution of 1905 with his Eleventh Symphony.

The first half of the concert featured the U.S. premiere of Anti-Formalist Rayok, Shostakovich's skewering of the Stalinist practice of bringing in bloated so-called "musicologists" to crack down on hard-working composers. It was Stalin's overreaction to Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk that triggered the artistic purges of the 1930s, forcing Shostakovich to lock his Fourth Symphony in a drawer of his composition table.

That was where the score for Rayok was discovered in 1989, 15 years after Shostakovich's death. This proved to be a comic cantata, with bass Mikhail Svetlov taking the parts of members of a composer's board (including Stalin himself) to decry "formalism" in music. Mr. Svetlov proved an engaging narrator. The Bolshoi veteran took great pleasure in lacerating these pompous popinjays, accompanied by repeated figures in the musical styles that were under attack by Stalin's yes-men.

The Eleventh Symphony (subtitled "The Year 1905") dates from 1957 and was written to commemorate the anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" (June 22, 1905, in the Western calendar) a massacre of Russian workers who were engaged in a peaceful protest in St. Petersburg. Approaching the Winter Palace to present a petition to Tsar Nicholas II, men, women and children were abruptly cut down by machine guns in the streets.

This particular symphony was a product of Shostakovich's rehabilitation with Soviet musical authorities. Although this is one of Shostakovich's most successful and popular symphonies in Russia, its origin as a piece of musical propaganda during the Cold War means that it has never found an audience in America. It does have a strong connection with the Houston Symphony, who gave the work's U.S. premiere under Leopold Stokowski in 1958. 

This is Shostakovich at his most tonal and pictorial, sketching events and locations with broad, black strokes that owe something to the stark orchestrations of Mussorgsky. Conventional symphonic form is ignored for four interconnected tone-poems, depicting locations, events and emotions with liberal quotations from Russian work songs. 

Newspaper headline of the massacre.
In the first movement, ("The Winter Palace") the dread of that January morning is conveyed by a texture of low strings. A work-song depicts the plight of the common people under the heel of the Tsar. The second movement is a graphic blow-by-blow account of the march and massacre on the streets of St. Petersburg, ending in a rataplan on the snare to portray the chattering of the machine guns. The effect is frightening in its cold efficiency.

Mr. Graf drew somber textures from his orchestra for the third movement, a slow dirge mourning the victims of the Winter Palace massacre. This transforms suddenly into the Tocsin a call to arms that incorporates the full wrath of the brass section, building up to a mighty martial climax. The work ended with a long English horn solo and a final, deafening close incorporating brass, percussion and the clangor of church bells. The effect was simply devastating.
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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.