Thursday, April 09, 2015

Symphony Preview: Mozart and Shostakovich offer stark contrasts at the SLSO Friday and Saturday, April 10 and 11, 2015

Dmitri Shostakovich
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In the introduction to his chapter on Shostakovich in the 1967 Penguin Books edition of "The Symphony," British musicologist Robert Layton described the Russian symphonist somewhat dismissively as a "documentary composer, far more bound up with this time than...Prokofiev, or any other of his Soviet contemporaries."

That's probably not the prevailing view of Shostakovich these days, but I do think that a full appreciation of his "Symphony No. 8 C minor," op. 65, which the SLSO is performing this weekend, requires some understanding of the time and place of its origin.

Shostakovich wrote the work in a little over two months, during the summer of 1943 (although he probably had it sketched out in his head long before that). It was a time when the tide of the war was turning against Germany. Leningrad was still under siege but the Germans had been defeated at Stalingrad earlier that year, and the overall mood was more optimistic. Official composers were expected to reflect that in their music.

But Shostakovich was unable to comply. Yes, he was glad to see the Nazis lose, but he could take no joy in seeing Stalin win. He recalled all to clearly the Soviet dictator's reign of terror. In Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov's 1979 "Testimony," allegedly based on Shostakovich's memoirs, the composer is quoted as saying: "I feel eternal pain for those who were killed by Hitler, but I feel no less pain for those killed on Stalin's orders. I suffer for everyone who was tortured, shot, or starved to death. There were millions of them in our country before the war with Hitler began. The war brought much new sorrow and much new destruction, but I haven't forgotten the terrible pre-war years. That is what my symphonies are about, including Number Eight."

Stalin in 1943
"Between 1937 and 1939 alone," wrote Mark Wigglesworth in his notes for the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra recording the Shostakovich Eighth, "one and a half million Russians were liquidated. People were forced to inform on each other and in one region a quota was even established whereby everyone needed to inform on five people. If you could only name four, you had to be the fifth. In addition, Stalin's policy of agricultural collectivism led to such poverty and famine that there were even reports of parents eating children."

Against such a backdrop, only a memorial would suffice

Laid out in five movements—the last three of which are played without pause—and running just over an hour, the "Symphony No. 8" can sometimes feel overwhelming in its intensity. This is especially true of the long (just under 30 minutes) first movement. Marked Adagio, Allegro Non Troppo, it begins with a dramatic three-note theme in the lower strings, variations of which recur throughout the piece, and rises to a shattering climax in a violent, mechanistic parody of a march before fading out in a despairing lament for solo trumpet and strings. It's reminiscent of the opening movement of Shostakovich's "Symphony No. 5," which was probably the composer's intent.

That would be powerful enough all by itself, but Shostakovich follows it with a grotesquely martial Allegretto and a propulsive Allegro Non Troppo which, as Mr. Wigglesworth writes, "seems to go the whole hog in expressing the total crushing of an individual. The relentlessness of its machine-like ostinato shows no pity at the human shrieks that ride above it". It's fast and, like the mechanized warfare that seems to have inspired it, relentlessly loud.

A final blast of winds and percussion leads to the Largo fourth movement. It's a passacaglia with a repeating bass line that rises only to repeatedly fall back again. Higher instruments try—and fail—to escape the pull of its gravity. Blogger Paul Serotsky calls this movement "static, chilled, drained, the frozen heart of the symphony."

But nothing stays frozen forever. As the Allegretto final movement begins, that plodding bass line yields to what Mr. Serotsky calls "the first friendly sound in the entire symphony": a little phrase on the bassoons that sounds almost jaunty. Like the first movement, this one also builds to a massive orchestral outburst. But instead of falling into despair at the end, it yields to soft, hauntingly beautiful music in the flutes and strings. Maybe it's hope. Maybe it's just resignation. It is, in any case, in C major. And it's the end.

The Mozart family, c. 1780
The concerts will open with a work so different from the Shostakovich that it might as well have been composed on another planet. It's the "Sinfonia concertante" in E-flat major for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra, K. 364, by Mozart. Written when the composer was touring Europe in 1779, the work is generally considered to be Mozart's most successful experiment in this form, which is essentially a symphony with a group (a pair, in this case) of instrumental soloists.

There's no horror here, but there is around a half-hour of great music. That includes a Presto finale that begins with what New York Philharmonic program annotator James M. Keller calls "a tune of ineluctable charm" and then moves on to a theme which is "the perfect expression of late-18th-century mores. For a moment we are transported to the drawing room of an 18th-century aristocrat. The conversation is clever and cultured, but suddenly all heads turn as one of the assembled eminences—a Voltaire, perhaps, or a Franklin—imparts an observation that towers above the surrounding babble, and then brings the proceedings back to earth with an irrepressible chortle."

Which seems only right, as Mozart was a fellow much given to irrepressible chortles, musical or otherwise.

The soloists for the Mozart are both members of the band: Assistant Principal Viola Jonathan Chu (playing violin this time around) and Principal Viola Beth Guterman Chu. They're also married to each other, a fact which has at least the potential to add an air of intimate communication to their performance.

At the podium will be Hannu Lintu. When I saw him here in October 2013 I found his style on the podium to be a nearly ideal mixture of romantic intensity and intellectual rigor—fire combined with ice. For a program with contrasts as stark as this one, that could be a good fit.

The Essentials: Hannu Lintu conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with violinist Jonathan Chu and violist Beth Guterman Chu on Friday at 10:30 a.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m., April 10 and 11. The program features Mozart's "Sinfonia concertante," K. 364 and Shostakovich's "Symphony No. 8." The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information:

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