Saturday, May 14, 2016

Sitting through Shostakovich

The title probably makes it seem like sitting through Shostakovich is a burden, which is certainly not the case for me.  (I just liked the alliteration.)  However, there were quite a few people who left at the end of the 3rd and 4th movements of Shostakovitch's 13th Symphony last night.  Well, their loss for sure.  It wasn't an easy symphony -- it's essentially an hour-long setting of Yevgeny Yevtushenko's poem "Babi Yar."  So if you don't like sitting through long stretches of unintelligible lyrics, this is probably not for you.  I kid, I kid.  But it can be hard to separate the fact that the lyrics make sense for the Russians in the audience (generally quite a few when they play Shostakovich) and for the rest of us it is mostly ornamentation, and we pay far more attention to the music (though they did provide a full translation of the poem in the program).  I know that Shostakovich has written other symphonies that incorporated some choral sections, but I cannot recall if any others incorporated it so thoroughly.

In any case, I can understand why the 13th isn't programmed that often.  I may have seen it before, but I can't find any definitive evidence.  I will probably remember this one from last night as the definitive performance (performed on Friday the 13th no less!), as the soloist, bass Petr Migunov, was quite magnetic, even occasionally interacting with the chorus up in the balcony.  There were all the quirky characteristic Shostakovich touches, including jazzy syncopation in the lower woodwinds and brass and a section (I believe it was the 3rd) that sounds a bit like a peasant melody a la Dvorak.  Even though I couldn't follow the lyrics, I definitely like the message of the 5th and final movement, which praises Galileo and dismisses the mere "careerists" who attacked and slandered him back in the day.  A very fitting message.  The symphony does end quietly, which is certainly a shift from several of the more bombastic sections.  Interestingly, the Mozart Violin Concerto #5, played before the intermission, has quite a few parallels, including some playful interplay between the solo violin and orchestra and a fairly surprising ending: all of a sudden it stops.  I thought it was a very good concert.

So I decided to go over the scanned programs to see whether I had seen #13 before or not.  As I said, I can't prove whether I had attended this symphony before.  It was interesting, as I was flipping through the programs, in that only occasionally could I recall much about the actual music, like the long drum part in Shostakovich's 7th Symphony.  I am far more likely to remember something about the events framing the concert, like Leonard Slatkin stepping in to conduct Shostakovich's Symphony 5 when Muti collapsed on the podium and had that health scare a few years back.  When I do remember the music itself, it is almost only for very familiar pieces like Dvorak's Symphony 8 or 9 or the Beethoven symphonies, and I am kind of recreating the memory of the piece out of all the times I have heard the music (mostly likely including from recordings).  I simply don't have enough musical memory to distinguish between different performances of the same piece of music, with a few very limited exceptions.  That doesn't mean I don't plan on attending classical concerts in the future.  I do enjoy them, but it is much more of a transitory thing.  In contrast, after spending a few minutes with the program of a play I attended, huge amounts of the play will come flooding back.  I just can keep far more of a play in my head because I can grab onto various plot points, whereas music is pleasant but not central to my mental processes.  I think that is the best way to describe it.

Anyway, I might as well keep track of how many of Shostakovich symphonies I have seen.  I'm coming fairly close to seeing a whole cycle.  Now I think I already mentioned that I saw the Pacifica Quartet do the entire cycle of Shostakovich string quartets -- all 15 spread over 5 concerts.  It was truly remarkable.  I suppose it was around 2005 or 2006 that I caught the Shostakovich bug and made an effort to seek out his work when it was being played.  There are a few other pieces that I hone in on (Elgar's Enigma Variations, Prokofiev's 5th Symphony and Dvorak's 9th Symphony), but the only other 20th Century composer I always seek out is Messiaen; I've seen his Vingt regards sur l'Enfant Jesus, L'Ascension twice (once conducted by Boulez!) and Quatuor pur la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) at least three times.

Getting back to Shostakovich, I've also seen Shostakovich's Violin Concerto #1, Cello Concerto #1 and #2, his Piano Quintet a couple of times, Suite for Variety Orchestra (very jazzy!), and his Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk suite (the music that started all his troubles with Stalin!).

While I am probably missing one or two, these are the symphonies I can prove I attended:
#1 (VSO - Jan 2012)
#4 (CSO - May 2008)
#5 (CSO - Oct 2008 and Feb 2011)
#6 (CSO - May 2010)
#7 (CSO - Nov 2007)
#8 (CSO - Oct 2010, London Philharmonic Oct 2014 and TSO April 2016)
#9 (VSO - Feb 2014)
#10 (Grant Park Orch. July 1999 and Aug. 2011, Chicago Civic - Nov 2007, OSM (Montréal) - Nov 2015)
#11 (Chicago Civic - April 2008 and CSO - March 2010)
#13 (TSO - May 2016)
#15 (CSO - May 2009 and the reduced version by VSO Chamber Players - May 2013)

I wouldn't be surprised if I managed to see #12 or #14 and just don't have the programs, but anyway those are certainly the highest priority in terms of completing the cycle.  It is interesting how the CSO and VSO are far more likely to play Shostakovich than the TSO, although I did pass up a late night concert a while back where the TSO was playing Symphony #5.  (I just didn't want to be out that late frankly.)  I see that the VSO is ending its season with Symphony #5 and in March 2017, they will be tackling Symphony #12.  I'd like to get out there for that, but it is fairly unlikely at this point.  I no longer am doing any consulting for TransLink.  It seems I have missed out on #5 several times, including on the spring break trip to Boston, but I'm sure I'll catch it again eventually.*  For a composer a bit on the obscure side, I actually have managed to see an awful lot of his work.

* Actually, I was going through my subscription for the TSO for next season, and while they still have a fair ways to go to catch up to the OSM, it is a slightly more adventurous season than before.  In addition, to a few favorites like Dvorak's Cello Concerto and his 9th Symphony, I'll catch Shostakovich's Symphonies 1 and 5.  (Now if I could only come up with a good excuse to go to Montreal to see Shostakovich's Symphony 15 and/or Messaien's Turangalîla-Symphonie (which they are only playing on Tuesday and Wednesday evening.  How crazy is that!).)

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