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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Concert Review: On With the Revolution

The Osaka Philharmonic Orchestra plays Shostakovich.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Russian propaganda poster commemorating the rebellion on the battleship Potemkin
and the uprisings of the year 1905.
Like the people of Russia, the Eleventh and Twelfth Symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich have suffered since their premieres. Composed at the peak of the composer's considerable powers, these pieces as grand public gestures, written to commemorate the start of the Russian Revolution (in the Eleventh) and its triumphant conclusion in the Twelfth. Each symphony is a programmatic work in four movements, requiring enormous orchestral forces and considerable lung power from the woodwinds and brass.

On Saturday, Feb. 18, conductor Michiyoshi Inoue led his Osaka Philharmonic Orchestra forces in a concert that featured both of these enormous symphonies with only an intermission break between. In doing this, he created a larger narrative, the story of a people rising up against oppression, and detailing both the the positive and negative consequences of that an action. More importantly, this programming choice provided valuable insight into a pair of compositions that have been largely neglected outside Russia, and have become little more than career footnotes following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Politics aside, the Eleventh and Twelfth are important, mature examples of Shostakovich’s symphonic style. The Eleventh opened with a sharp, icy gust of strings, over which the timpani tapped out a theme that would form the principal idea of this hour-long work. The first movement The Palace Square was a slow crescendo, chronicling the march of protestors to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, a people driven to the brink by poverty and starvation.

The music shifted without pause into the second movement, a steam-rolling Allegro which commemorated the massacre of those protestors by Imperial riflemen on The 9th of January, 1905. The chatter of guns was echoed by pounding timpani, roaring trombones and a relentless, brutal rhythm from the snare drum. Shostakovich creates terror here, much as he did in his "war" symphonies, but the villain is not an advancing Nazi army but a government that has turned its hand against its own people. Under Mr. Inouye, this burst with shattering power, with the strings and winds adding to the sense of clamor and alarum.

The work then returned to frozen silence, now terrible in the wake of the massacre. The way was cleared for the third movement, In Memoriam, a slow funeral march that seemed to weep at the futility and carnage. Shostakovich was born in 1906, just after these events, and this movement seems to reach back to the  transitioning Russia of his childhood. The final movement, Tocsin (alarm) is a confrontation between the irreconcilable keys of G major and G minor with no victory in sight. In this case, the winners were the conductor, orchestra and audience, who summoned a storm of applause.

The Twelfth Symphony is an even rarer find on a symphonic program. It is shorter in length, and functions as a direct sequel, using revolutionary hymns and Russian folk music to chronicle the final, successful uprising of the people against the Tsar. Programming these works consecutively can put a terrible strain on the musicians of an orchestra, particularly the horn players, and that came through in the first phrases uttered by the principal horn in the first movement. However, he recovered, soldiering on and lifting his solo line above the tumult.

In exploring this important repertory, Mr. Inouye has done Japan an invaluable service, allowing contemporary listeners a chance to judge these two works years after Soviet Russia has become something for the history books.  Heard together like this, the Shostakovich Eleventh and Twelfth prove their worth as important entries in the composer's canon, works that deserve to be heard more often. That Mr. Inoue was able to accomplish this "revolutionary" activity at the helm of a fine and forceful ensemble like the Osaka Philharmonic Orchestra represents a coup in itself.

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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.