Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony in Dmitri Shostakovich's From Jewish Folk Poetry, Symphony No. 5, and three excerpts from The Age of Gold. Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, CA. Through December 1, without The Age of Gold. Reviewed November 30.
Usually the pre-concert talk at a concert is limited to, well... pre-concert.... On November 30, Michael Tilson Thomas talked the talk and walked the walk right into the middle of the show, recorded and filmed as part of his Keeping Score series for PBS.
Here the subject was Dmitri Shostakovich's great Symphony No. 5, a work well-known and well-parsed, so it was a pleasure to hear Thomas share a fresh perspective which, if not necessarily true, was thoroughly engaging.
Engagement and truth are, admittedly, uneasy bed-partners in the Shostakovichian household, held hostage, if you will, by the iron will of the Stalinist times through which the composer somehow endured. In truth, Shostakovich was an enigma to his death, each pained portrait of him seemingly more angst-ridden than the last, with a somehow admirable reluctance to put many verbal expression marks on the pages of his music beyond "espressivo" ("expressive"). Expressive of what? This was Thomas's task at hand.
Taking the "everything you hear in this work is generated from the first few measures" approach, Thomas demonstrated how the first four motives of the first theme group not only set stage for the entire first movement, but also what these thematic fragments may mean.
With its opening short-long, dark, ascending minor sixth, Thomas drew a parallel with Ludwig van Beethoven's similarly rhythmed Symphony No. 9 opener (all excerpts discussed were immediately played by the orchestra), identifying such ideas with the heroic strivings of individuals. The ensuing, descending flourishes of three pairs of dotted-eighth / thirty-second notes were then a sigh of resignation, after which, three static violin notes of short-short-long (two eighths and a quarter) were, therefore, a "dead end."
Well, yes and no. While there certainly is heroism in the Shostakovich opener (the dotted eighth / sixteenth and doubly dotted eighth / thirty-second are both clichés or "topics" that have been associated with nobility since at least the early baroque), there is at least as much anguish, not a particular sentiment associated with that particular Beethoven beginning.
The descending sigh could have as much beauty as futility, and as for the final three notes? With the ascending bass line below it, these notes can also be less dramatically interpreted as a point of rest, a repose.... a cadence. Indeed, the resting note is A -- forming the interval of a fifth with respect to the keynote of the work D. Further, the two-eighths-quarter figure is found in many Shostakovich works (the Cello Concerto No. 1, Symphony No. 9, and Piano Concerto No. 2 leap to mind for starts), and has been ambiguously associated with dirge when slow (think the second movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7) and gallop when fast (as in Gioacchino Rossini's William Tell Overture, which Shostakovich was certainly thinking of in his own 9). As in the music of Guillaume de Machaut, Gustav Mahler, George Crumb, and many others -- when is a motive significant, and when is it simply one of the ways that a composer goes about the process of making music?
The fourth motive (arguably the main melodic figure of the first thematic group) has a prominent lowered second degree of its scale, a descending fragment of a Phrygian mode. Thomas rightly noted that that one flatted scale degree (b2) changes everything, and he showed such convincing alterations and juxtapositions throughout this stimulating musical discussion.
By the time the little talk came to its conclusion, we had heard a significant part of the Symphony, enough to know that the complete performance after intermission would be similarly edifying.
The opener was the less familiar On Jewish Folk Poetry, with three fabulous Russians -- soprano Oksana Dyka, mezzo-soprano Elena Manistina, and tenor Vsevolod Grivnov holding forth in various combinations through its 11 songs. In Shostakovich, here as elsewhere, the sympathy and suffering are at once personal and universal.