Saturday, May 1, 2010
Volume 17, Number 5
Trend and Tried-and-True / Mark Alburger
Chronicle of March 2010
Illustration / Dmitri Shostakovich in 1942
Harriet March Page
Patti Noel Deuter
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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...
Dmitri Shostakovich's The Nose. Metropolitan Opera, New York, NY. "[T]he South African artist William Kentridge, who directed this production, helped design the sets and created the videos that animate the staging, received the heartiest bravos. . . . Stop-action animation and theatrical design are central to Mr. Kentridge’s work, and he has unleashed his imagination on Shostakovich’s bitterly satirical and breathless opera. Musically you are not likely to hear a more insightful, ornery and, when appropriate, achingly poignant account of Shostakovich’s still-shocking score than the performance the conductor Valery Gergiev drew from the Met orchestra and chorus and the large cast: some 30 artists, singing about 80 solo roles. It was a breakthrough night for the baritone Paulo Szot in his Met debut as Kovalyov, the beleaguered petty bureaucrat who awakens one morning to find his nose missing. This unconventional opera, which Shostakovich wrote at 22, had its premiere in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) in 1930. The dissonant, brutal score was instantly condemned by Soviet authorities, and the work was not performed again in Russia until 1974. It is time to reassess this opera, and the Met deserves thanks for championing it. Gogol’s absurdist 1836 story hooked the immensely gifted and ambitious young Shostakovich. Its sorry hero, a former major and a humdrum collegiate assessor, finds himself inexplicably noseless. Suddenly he has no profile, and not just metaphorically, in St. Petersburg society. Setting out to find his missing part, Kovalyov spots it at a cathedral, human size and dressed as a state councilor, a superior to Kovalyov. In many great operas composers have had to whittle down an epic literary work into a suitable libretto. In The Nose Shostakovich, who fashioned the libretto with three other writers, does the opposite. Gogol tells this baffling tale with disarming simplicity. When a police inspector presents Kovalyov with his missing nose, for example, the inspector explains in just a couple of sentences that he nabbed the culprit as it was trying to board a train out of the city. To Shostakovich this brief exchange screamed out for operatic dramatization. Here it becomes an extended, hyperpaced choral ensemble with milling crowds, vendors, policemen and the fleeing nose. Shostakovich’s tendency toward long-windedness is already evident, even though the opera lasts just 1 hour 45 minutes, and the Met, rightly, performs it without intermission. Yet in scene after scene Shostakovich’s music, scored for an orchestra pulsing with reedy woodwinds, snarling brasses and steely percussion, dazzles you: the sputtering, raspy harangue that the wife of the barber Ivan delivers when she discovers that her hopeless spouse has dropped someone’s nose into the bread she has baked; the scene in which Kovalyov first appears, in the throes of an erotic dream, depicted with instrumental grunts and atonal groans; the wordless chorus at the cathedral that lends the bleak comedy a fleeting passage of mysticism. Shostakovich evokes frothy gallops, slithering waltzes and circus bands with a fractured modernist brilliance that equals Stravinsky’s. The Nose is the work of a young man eager to show off. . . . Mr. Kentridge sets “The Nose” around the time of its 1930 premiere to explore themes of totalitarian oppression. The sets, which he designed with Sabine Theunissen, are covered with newsprint evoking a society drowning in propaganda" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 3/6/10].
Perspectives: Tundra Songs. Kronos Quartet. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "Kronos . . . looked northward, presenting music and performers from within or near the Arctic Circle. Mostly the quartet stood aside, leaving the music making to guest performers, but each half of the program ended with a collaboration that let the Kronos and its guests explore one another’s turf. Most of the works were hybrids of exotic timbres, electronica, and indie pop. But there were moments of calm before this storm, in the opening set by Ritva Koistinen. Ms. Koistinen, who plays the kantele, a Finnish zither with a delicately ringing timbre, began with a traditional piece, Church Bells of Konevitsa, which conveyed a sense of the gentle-voiced instrument’s color and nuance. She then gradually pulled back the curtain on the kantele’s broader palette: the chromaticism in Erkki Salmenhaara’s Inventio, the swirling figuration that melts into a meditative reverie in Karin Rehnqvist’s Interludes, and the pentatonic tracery of Toivo Elovaara’s Forest Lake, each touching on a different aspect of the kantele’s range. Ms. Koistinen was at her best in Arvo Pärt’s Pari Intervallo, an early organ work that had an otherworldly charm in the kantele’s plucked timbres. Hurdy-Gurdy, a Swedish duo (Stefan Brisland-Ferner and Totte Mattsson) that performs on the instrument it is named for, and on laptops loaded with sampled and manipulated hurdy-gurdy sounds, closed the first half. Mr. Brisland-Ferner’s Delirium seemed aptly named: an eerie, high-pitched tone, cranked out on one of the hurdy-gurdys, grew into a richly chromatic torrent as samples expanded the texture. The group also played its high-energy, dancelike arrangements of three traditional pieces -- Ynglingen, Maran and Spindelleken, the last with a lovely plucked melody -- and joined forces with the Kronos for a vigorous account of Scatter, a work Mr. Brisland-Ferner and Mr. Mattsson wrote for the quartet in 2008. Kimmo Pohjonen and Samuli Kosminen, a Finnish duo, do for the accordion what Mr. Brisland-Ferner and Mr. Mattsson do for the hurdy-gurdy: Mr. Pohjonen plays the actual instrument and occasionally vocalizes (he doesn’t sing, exactly) and Mr. Kosminen operates a laptop with sampled accordion and vocal sounds. And though it did play a couple of gentler pieces -- Mr. Pohjonen’s Ulaani and Kluster -- the duo shares with Hurdy-Gurdy a passion for fast, virtuosic, beat-heavy freakouts that would yield an irresistible visceral thrill even in more conventional timbres. The Kronos and Tanya Tagaq, an Inuit throat singer from Nunavut, the Canadian territory, closed the program with Derek Charke’s Tundra Songs, a rich-textured five-movement work in which a combination of slowly unfolding, consonant string writing, Ms. Tagaq’s athletic vocalizations, and manipulated recordings of arctic sounds (ice cracking, raven calls, seals) evoke the change of the northern seasons and tell the story of Sedna, an Inuit goddess who is described, in Ms. Tagaq’s narration, as the foremother of humanity" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 3/14/10].
Gerald Finley and Julius Drake perform music of Maurice Ravel, Samuel Barber, and Charles Ives. Zankel Hall, New York, NY. "Mr. Finley and Mr. Drake were ideally subtle collaborators in Ravel’s Histoires Naturelles, a set of five comic animal portraits. Mr. Finley paid tribute to another anniversary celebrant, Samuel Barber (whose centenary is commemorated this year), in four disarmingly simple songs, the most striking of which was Solitary Hotel, Barber’s introspective setting of a section from Joyce’s Ulysses. A concluding Ives group drew fully on Mr. Finley’s expressive range: he began with an intensely focused reading of West London, then lightened the mood with In the Alley, slipped into an Old West accent for Charlie Rutlage and closed with the zesty violence of Slugging a Vampire [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 4/21/10].
Flutist Carol Wincenc Ruby Anniversary Series. Peter Jay Sharp Theater, Juilliard School, New York, NY. "In Joan Tower’s Rising, written for the occasion, Ms. Wincenc was joined by the Juilliard String Quartet. . . . In the second premiere, “... becoming ...” by Shih-Hui Chen, Ms. Wincenc alternated among flute, alto flute and piccolo in lyrical phrases that gradually grew richer during the 11-minute work. . . . The biggest surprise of Yuko Uebayashi’s Au-Delà du Temps (Transcending Time), for two flutes and piano, was its vintage. Composed in 2002, the four-movement work had a Satie-like simplicity and an unabashed melodic sentimentality that strongly recalled music by Les Six . . . . Ms. Wincenc gathered another flute partner, Jeremiah Duarte Bills, and a chorus of 40 more flutists -- including students; colleagues, like Jayn Rosenfeld and Marya Martin; and Emma Resmini, a bright young prodigy -- for A Samba, a cheery showpiece by Andrew Thomas. George Stelluto conducted the ensemble, which included percolating percussion and barely audible strings. Four lithe young dancers, choreographed by Gillian Abbott, and collective leaps by the flute choir contributed to a tone of exuberance" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 4/1/10].