Saturday, May 1, 2010

Trend and Tried-and-True / Mark Alburger

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote 15 symphonies, and his eighth usually hasn't been on the top of everyone's list (those honors have often gone to the first, fifth, seventh, and tenth), so how is it we've heard it twice over the past couple of years from the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall? Co-incidence? Trend? Composers and pieces come in and out of fashion due to circumstance and zeitgeist, so who's to say? At any rate, when last we checked in with Shostakovich's Symphony No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 65 (1943), the (now late) Mstislav Rostropovich, a personal friend of Dmitri, was at the helm, and one had the sense that the cellist-director was channelling the composer from beyond the grave.

This time (April 3), it was up-and-coming Russian conductor Vassily Petrenko. So how did he do? Not bad, given the precedent. And more and more we become convinced that this Symphony is worthy of an increased regard: what it lacks in immediately accessibility, it seems to make up in sheer weirdness. One can well imagine what the opening night audience thought more than 60 years ago.

From the start, it seems a knock-off of his own great Fifth -- dotted rhythms in counterpoint, a second theme accompanied by patterns of quarter-eighth-eighth, all in a hushed atmophere until the blazing development section. But by this point, it does seem to have taken flight on its own, merely than being a clever orchestral gridding on previous material (I am personally cut to the quick here, given my own compositional predilections!). The music becomes so breathtakingly fierce and bizarre that there can be little argument. In a life of opprossion in the Soviet Union (pictures of Shostakovich are resolutely grim throughout his life), in tandem with wartime privations of the early 1940's -- what other artistic responses could be made than grim resignation alternating with shreiks of agony.

And if the unusal marriage of an extremely long first movement coupled with a series of briefer essays only partially works, well, tough times call for avant choices.

While the second movement's stridency recalls a less nighmarish vision in the Fifth's Scherzo, the third breaks new ground as brusque, changeable ostinati accompany howling, sustained angularities in probably the work's most memorable moments. The fourth and fifth movements directly elide from this point -- respectively a pangeant passacaglia and a halting, fitfull finale. Trpceski kept everything well in hand, and out of hand, as conditions meritted. There was nevertheless something reminiscent of F.J. Haydn's Symphony No. 45 ("Farewell"), as a number of patrons hit the door, particularly during the intentionally anticlimactic climaxes of the finale. Shostakovich learned his lessons from Gustav Mahler well. Maybe too well.

Even at this remove, there is something a little daring in programing this monster of a work. Shostakovich makes demands on his listeners; but, gratifyingly, most of the audience seemed very much up to the challenge in a performance that drew the best from the San Francisco players in haunting solo woodwinds, stentorian brass, pounding percussion, and resonant strings.

There was nothing remotely dangerous, of course, in the other programmed work (although one pianist, Simon Barere, died while playing the first few bars of it with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy at Carnegie Hall, back on April 2, 1951). Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor has been a popular success since its premiere on April 3, 1869 in Copenhagen (precisely 141 years before this present concert). Here the young virtuoso Simon Trpceski had his way with it, and was most clear in delineating all the work's excitements from the famous opening sonata-allegro through its danceable rondo finale.

Also tried-and-true was the safe programming of a concerto and symphony. Often such shows also feature an overture. Would it have been too much to ask to have at least had a curtain-raiser contemporary work to match the youth of many of the performers onstage? Probably.

But, ah, there could be a trend...