(10/8) The afternoon started off with a talk by Greg Sandow introducing Shostakovich and a bit of the his history of Shostakovich and the events leading up to the pieces, in particular the Fifth Symphony. And he left those of us at the pre-talk with some questions to think about.
The concert opened with Shostakovich’s Suite from ‘The Bolt’. A light hearted piece, and for this American’s ears, something that could have come right out of Tin Pan Alley of Irving Berlin and George Gershwin. The Piano Concerto with Vladimir Feltsman on Piano and Charles Lirette taking the trumpet solo on short notice showed a different range of Shostakovich, with parts considerably darker than the Bolt, and becoming stronger and brighter towards the end. And finally the Fifth Symphony where you could almost see hardships and struggle the noble Soviet worker endures and overcomes. Watching and listening to Tim work the timpani was something to remember. Little things like realizing that the piano part started sounding odd, because it was a celesta and not a piano, provided flashes of wonder along the way.
During the pre-concert talk, and again at a post-concert reception, Greg Sandow explained the origin of the Fifth Symphony. Of
Shostakovich and other artists of the 1930s Soviet Union being in fear
of politically motivated arrests. Knowing that Shostakovich received a
harsh review, likely instigated by Stalin himself, for his work
immediately prior to his working the Fifth Symphony gave a context as
to why this work had the themes that it did, and why the themes were so
But Sandow’s next question is a worthy one:
Given that we now
know that Shostakovich detested what he was doing, and the bludgening
feeling that one may sense at various points was wholy intentional,
should we respond in horror, or does the audience rise up in adoration
and exhaultation of triumph, as every audience does (as did we that
Do I believe that the beliefs and the intention of the
I believe that the arts at their best offer something
for us to react to and to reflect upon. That a Shostakovich is able to
write a Fifth Symphony where his life depended on its listener with
feelings of triumph and exhaultation does not take away from
Shostakovich’s skill as a composer and artist. To decide that you
refuse to accept what the composer hoped his audience would take (he
certainly wanted his Stalinist reviewers to walk away with feelings of
triumph and exhaultation) would have meant that he did not achieve his
goal and was not able to fully apply his skill as a craftsman.
That said, it is worth knowing about Shostakovich the artist in the
midst of a career under a Stalin as opposed to merely the composer of
the Fifth Symphony. Recognizing that Shostakovich over the course of a
career was creating works of wonder in a state of internal conflict and
turmoil. And even as we can appreciate a craftsman at work, we can see
a man responding to authority that is trying to dictate his moods and
beliefs and maybe remember history that much more vividly.
Is this something that classical music can do? In comparison to
theatre, film, books, poetry or the visual arts, classical music is
forced to be more abstract as the artist is not able to directly
present an image or idea for the audience, but is forced to play to
emotion and feeling and let the audience react as it will. It does not
have the ability to be direct in setting historical scenes in ways that
the audience would recognize as parallel to current events such as the
play within a play of Hamlet, or a Salem witch hunt parallel to the
American red scare of the 1950s depicted in Arthur Miller’s Crucible.
That said, I have a picture in my head of the cellist Vedran Smailovic
in 1992 Sarajevo, playing day after day in cemetaries in a city under
seige. And maybe there is a place for classical music as a medium to
engage culture and provide a window for a world to look upon itself.