Sunday, November 24, 2013

Shostakovich 5: Mashed-up Memories

So, my daughter's youth orchestra gave a stunning performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 last weekend in Boston's Symphony Hall, a program which repeats in Carnegie Hall on Monday, December 9. First then, a tip to any NYC readers I may have picked up along the way: DO NOT MISS THIS CONCERT.

That may just seem like proud parental posturing, but believe me, conductor Ben Zander ignites something in these kids (ages 13-21) that is very special. His vision of the Shostakovich symphony is uncompromising and there's nothing jaded about the playing; the students believe him every step of the way. There's also nothing at all compromised about the level of the playing. Daughter of MMmusing is just one among 43 or so violinists, so I'm not pretending she's the star of the show, but this orchestra is fully up to the challenges posed by the most demanding music. (Mahler 5 is on deck for March!) I don't know how often one gets to hear an orchestra of this level which also has the luxury of rehearsing as often and as intensely as they do. (Read here what soloist Christopher O'Riley had to say about the first concert. Here's another review.)

Anyway, the Shostakovich has been a longtime favorite of mine (and of countless others, of course) for well more than two decades. I could say tons about it, but will simply share a few observations for now.
  • My first memory of the piece comes from when my older sister was home from college for Christmas break and received a birthday card from a sort of intellectual hipster type she had some interest in. In his letter he wrote something along the lines of "my gift to you is the third movement of Shostakovich's fifth symphony." [Just to be clear, the "gift" was not a recording or score; just "the" movement. It's the thought that counts.] I'm not sure I'd even heard of the piece or composer at that point, but this seemed to me (age 15 or so) the most impossibly romantic gesture imaginable and it set the bar high for my expectations about what this music must be like. (It's not clear to me if the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra cleared performance rights with my sister. It is clear to me that this is actually NOT the most thoughtful type of gift, but I still like the idea.)
  • A few years later, as a college freshman, I had the amazing opportunity to join the cello section of the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra at the exact time that a brilliant Russian conductor had just escaped (with Viktoria Mullova!) from the Soviet Union and become music director of this little orchestra that could. For the first concert, we performed Shostakovich 5 and even got a review in The New York Times. (The reviewer is right on about the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time string section. Like Groucho Mark, I look with suspicion on any orchestra that would have me as a cello-playing member.) Vakhtang Jordania was a protege of none other than the legendary Yevgeny Mravinsky, who premiered the symphony in 1937, so this put me in a pretty cool line of Shostakovich descendants. The truth is I remember very little of the musical specifics of that occasion, but it was still an unforgettable experience, even if I was also terrified!
  • Since that time, I've certainly listened to recordings of the symphony off and on, but it was more part of my past than present when I first sat in on one of this fall's rehearsals. On that Saturday afternoon, I had one of those marvelous flashback moments which sometimes seem to me the best kinds of moments music has to offer. The orchestra was in the middle of that 3rd movement (the one that now belongs to my older sister) and had just descended from a huge climax. As the violins were scuttling around, I had a strong sense of déjà vu - I knew something special was about to happen and, seconds before it started, I suddenly remembered that the oboe was about to introduce a heartrending new tune. One of those memory "click" moments. As I listened, I remembered that our Chattanooga oboist had played this solo perfectly (he got a nice citation in the Times review cited above), but I also slowly started to remember that this oboe melody was going to be returning later in...wait for it...the cello section! That's right, the cellos are the ones who take the lovely tune and realize its full potential as an anguished lament. Suddenly, all at once I was hearing the melody as new and old, as tender and tortured, as an oboe melody and as MY melody. This kind of slow unfolding of memory and expectation can be very rewarding, especially when connected to notes I've actually played with my own fingers.
The oboe melody makes its first appearance just after the 29:50 mark in the video below:

Then the cellos fulfill its cataclysmic potential here at 34:45.

I don't know about everyone, but for me this intersection of past and present, the way that music interacts with memory, is what it's all about - which makes musical experiences particularly ephemeral and unrepeatable. The fact that I both knew the piece deeply and had also forgotten much about it made the listening experience particularly rich in this regard. I might have to wait another 20 years before such a moment can be relived! Broadly speaking, it would be fascinating to determine how much of listening to music is about "hearing backwards and forwards." How often can one really be said simply to be listening to the present moment? Is that even possible without reference to past and future (memory and expectation)?

Still, as listening experiences go, the Symphony Hall performance last week was one of those everything-lines-up kind of experiences when my attention didn't seem to wane for a second during the entire 50 minutes of the symphony, aside from this kind of thinking back and forth through the music. It felt like Shostakovich was speaking quite directly to all of us, and if my attention was enhanced by the knowledge that my daughter was on stage, so be it.

The arc of the 3rd movement is particularly satisfying as a visual, by the way. When I listen to it (which I've done about 6-7 times since the concert), I find myself listening with reference to the evenly spaced outbursts which are easily visible below:

That amazing, time-stopping oboe solo occurs at about 6:15, shortly after the first of the movement's two enormous climaxes. The cello section reprise of the tune happens at 11:00 in the midst of the other great climax (you can actually see the music hit a dynamic wall right before). Looking at the music this way is a nice metaphor for what it's like to listen with a view of the overall structure, although one can't see all the important musical details in such an image. (Here's a post where I reflect on that idea more fully.) One can see, though, that the oboe/celli sections are proportionally spaced in a satisfying way. By the way, the tune returns one last time at the movement's very end [39:00 in the videos above] with the ethereal combination of harp and celeste.*

Though I think most of my listening that night was focused on Shostakovich, I did inevitably get distracted by one unexpected connection (here's where my regular readers will sigh knowingly) - certainly not something I was looking or listening for. There are a few bridge passages in that devastating third movement in which the strings play a simple rocking figure, richly voiced in a way that started ringing bells for me. At some point, I realized that these passages reminded me a LOT of similar bridge-like passages in Vaughan Williams' very different Tallis Fantasia. That famous work predates the Shostakovich symphony by almost three decades, although I have no reason to believe it's a direct influence. A more likely interpretation is that both works are referencing an intentionally old-fashioned kind of choral writing to create a particular kind of stillness in a more troubled modern context. Here are two such passages. Note that each features conventional triadic harmonies with the 3rd on top and the melody doubled by an inner voice.

Naturally, I decided to try merging these two passages. What you hear below begins with the two excerpts shown above and then alternates between six other excerpts, three from each work. Like so many of my mashups, the connections aren't intended to make a perfectly satisfying new whole, but rather to "say" with music how I hear these works conversing with each other. So, enough words. (...except to note that the entire sequence of eight alternating excerpts is looped four times in the audio below, just because I could...)

* Yes, the oboe solo is followed by clarinet and flute turns with the tune, but they feel more like extensions of the oboe moment than new sections.

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