Passacaglia

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Herissony Cat has heard a lot of Shostakovich in the past few months.

I am not a person of traditional faith.  Rather, I am inspired by patterns that establish themselves out of seeming randomness in the universe, occurrences that hint at the mysteries of order and disorder.  Last weekend, in the midst of a long drive, while pondering the Fibonacci sequence, I happened by accident upon something that mathematicians knew:  that the squares of a pair of sequential Fibonacci numbers is also a Fibonacci number.  I became fascinated by the Fibonaccis because of a purely personal reason:  My birthdate, 3/5, is on the sequence.. The numbers 3 and 5, and their sum–8–have always been “my numbers.” (People who think they now have the key to my passwords and PINs are wrong. I have other codes for those).  Not precisely lucky numbers, because I don’t think of numbers as inherently lucky, but numbers I notice in nature.  I don’t know precisely why I decided to add up the squares of my 3, 5 pair – 9, 25–to get 34, but once I did, I tried it for all of the other smaller sequential pairs and the pattern was repeated. I don’t know what that means, precisely, or if it “means” anything other than “math is weird” (which it is), but I knew that it stirred something deep in me, given the close relationship of the Fibonacci sequence to the Golden Mean or the Golden Ratio, found often in nature. There is deep mystery there, but order in that mystery.

All of this tangent is prelude to a concert, but there is more of the prelude before we get to the fugue–or in this case, the passacaglia– as The Universe sets up the playing board and deals out the cards.  The Universe (to anthropomorphize it) knows what the rules are, and knows what is random and what is not, and knows that even in the seemingly random rules still operate.  When you are dealt a card, there are only certain possibilities, governed by the number of cards in the deck (provided the dealer is not cheating).  When Einstein stated that “God does not play dice,” what I believe he meant is that the rules of probability are known.  Events that look to be random in the close view so often turn out not to be in the wider.

So, I do not see it as random at all that in a sequence of three-week gaps, starting on January 5, I was able to find tickets for four Shostakovich symphonies, in the following order: 7, 8, 10, 5. The first two are paired for me as the two composed during WWII, the 8th in a way a sequel to the 7th, as are the second two, which were the pair I had in my library before the current obsession.  Just over a year ago now, that obsession was kicked off, and there was a period of a few weeks where I literally listened to the 7th daily as I worked through thoroughly internalizing both the music and the history of the siege of Leningrad.  The obsession, as it began, was for the history. The music was just its soundtrack. But then I realized, in reading, that the music was telling me more than just a recitation of historical facts.  I needed to know the 7th in context–not of history, but of Shostakovich’s work, and of Shostakovich himself.  That is when I opened myself to listening to more, and the 8th Symphony was the first place I went.  And I had a very personal reaction to the work, one I’ve written about before; for here, suffice it to say it prompted deep reflection.

The 7th is a work that is brimming with life–with anger, desperation, beauty, sadness, and eloquence–and life, despite death. In its ending there is the sense of having been engaged in a monumental struggle, but somehow, in what could be a dying breath, the orchestra somehow stands up, shakes a musical fist repeatedly, and pounds out the closing notes as loudly as possible.  The 8th isn’t like that at all.  In the 8th, there is death despite life.  The first movement starts, I like to think, where the 7th symphony left off.  It as if it is the day after a battle, and the wounded are picking themselves off of the field, exhausted, sighing.  They stumble around the battlefield, only to discover that the battle is not, in fact, over.  There is an absolutely explosive episode in the centre of the first movement that leads to a massive, convulsive chord, and then perhaps the saddest English horn solo you’ll ever hear.  But the battle keeps coming back again, and again, and again, through the second movement and into the third, where it is relentless and punctuated by what can only be described as shrieks of pain.  In the midst of this, there is a sudden concert by a military band, full of bravado, before the relentless, restless chugging theme begins again–and burns itself out spectacularly as the fourth movement begins.  That fourth movement–the passacaglia– is likely why some have called the 8th the most frightening thing Shostakovich ever wrote, because it is absolutely numb and bleak, played pianissimo after the unrelenting crescendos of the third movement. There is no beauty, no sorrow, just a sense of aimless wandering and a lack of the ability to feel anything, over a nine-bar theme that repeats 12 times in the low basses (Is it significant that the “invasion theme” in the first movement of the 7th symphony also repeats 12 times?)  Somewhere out of that aimlessness a major chord is eventually found (of which Shostakovich said, “you will never know how much blood that C cost me”) and the fifth and final movement brings back some of the life that was lost, but there is no victory.  There is a folk-like solo for the violin and a beautifully operatic-sounding one for the cello, and then one final loud climax, which resolves with a chord and crash on the tam-tam, and then some jaunty bits for woodwinds, before the final, soft conclusion with  pianissimo strings holding a chord and a flute hovering above.  This is the place where Shostakovich, in other works, might bring in harps and celesta, but their lack here suggests that heaven has not in fact been achieved.  In the 8th, we almost don’t make it out alive, and in its tentative, quiet, lingering final chords, there is exhaustion, resignation, and a sense of relief that it’s finally done.

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Karina Canellakis’ pre-concert talk.

So the emotionally drained and draining 8th is not what I would call a crowd-pleaser.  But as I discovered, it really does make much more sense when paired with the 7th Symphony, which is why the fact I got to see both performed within a few weeks of each other was so significant to extending my understanding and appreciation of the work.  And there is an interesting tale to be told about why  the Detroit Symphony Orchestra decided to present this particular piece. The DSO was lead for this concert by guest conductor Karina Canellakis/ The Shostakovich 8th has a very personal meaning for her.  She was serving as assistant conductor of the Dallas Symphony when its conductor, Jaap van Zweden, was injured and she had to step in.  It was so close to the concert that she didn’t even have a chance to rehearse with the orchestra, conducting a piece she’d never directed before.  It was the Shostakovich 8th, and her performance made headlines.  Since then, her career, as the program notes put it, has skyrocketed.   Canellakis spent some time before the concert talking about the work, pointing out some of the highlights. She first played the opening of the chamber orchestra version of the 8th quartet, op. 110 a, to introduce the audience to the DSCH motif (Shostakovich’s musical monogram, the notes D, E flat, C, B (or H, in German notation) primarily to point out the use of the intervals used in the 8th symphony – while not using the DSCH motif directly, the use of seconds is also used in the opening, giving them a similar “feel” right from the beginning. She then went out to play that opening alongside the opening of the 5th symphony, again to point out the deliberate parallels. She talked about the dramatic dynamic differences in the piece–how the third movement has multiple crescendos even though it’s already marked fortissimo, and how the fourth is entirely pianissimo after the cataclysmic opening crash.  Canellakis was very engaging and informed as a speaker, and there was really something for everyone in her words, even for pro-level Shostakovich geeks like me.

The Shostakovich 8th Symphony was the second work on the program, after the Schumman piano concerto, a very different work, in the first half. The performance itself began with silence.  Canellakis held the orchestra in readiness for a long pause before lifting her baton to begin.  She has what I would term a very direct and emphatic style of conducting, expressive yet precise and angular.  I would have loved to have seen her face, since it was very clear the couple of times I saw her from the side how emotionally engaged she was with her work.  She had exquisite control of the orchestra and was not afraid of the work’s dramatic dynamic changes, which were explosive and intense (even the quiet passages, which were explosive in their own way).  That fourth movement can be a minefield–how to convey numbness and loss without dissolving into a muddle of sound? The orchestra navigated this brilliantly. The hall’s outstanding acoustics were of help here.  This was not the cavernous confines of a Roy Thompson Hall, but a much more intimate space, one allowing all the instruments to be heard, yet to maintain balance.   At the end, where high strings hold a long high note with harmonic overtones, while the low strings provide a quiet pizzicato accompaniment to a solo, tentative, fluttering flute before dissolving into nothingness, again Canellakis held the orchestra in silence under her baton as the last notes died away, giving the work space to complete in the same way as it had begun.

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Taking bows at the end.

The applause was thunderous, although a little more subdued than it had been in Columbus.  I didn’t cry.  But I did feel precisely what, I think, the composer intended.

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***

The Schumann piano concerto deserves its own post.  That will be forthcoming, as well as the concluding piece of my Detroit architecture series.

*****
A postscript…

The universe, which gave me these two iconic symphonies scheduled just three weeks apart, also located them in two cities with deep significance to me, in the midst of January, where cold is a given and the potential of inclement weather lurks around every corner, as if to say, “I will set this up for you, but I am going to make you worry about it.”  There was always looming the possibility that something could go wrong and I’d be prevented from attending.  Being a proper project manager, I know about risk planning, and so I built extra time into my schedule to make it more likely that I arrive well in advance.

Especially when compared with the weekend of January 19, when a large snowstorm hit, the weather forecast for this past weekend looked wonderful, with only a few flurries forecast overnight into early Sunday.  By that morning, that had turned into a full-on measurable snowfall all across southwestern Ontario, resulting in horrible roads even though, for the most part, the snow had stopped falling. Clearly the road crews had not been expecting things and were a little slow on the plowing and salting.  I had also chosen to cross at Port Huron since Google had told me it was a bit faster, only to encounter a pernicious band of lake effect snow that caused near-whiteout conditions, the worst snow I had driven in since my Columbus commute days.  The consequence to all of this is that by the time I reached the concert, I was both hyper-attentive and tired at the same time. That worked well with this particular piece.

The drive home was actually enjoyable. I could see the stars through the windshield, and my iTunes playlist kept handing me Songs With Meaningful Lyrics.  It is a tradition, or rather a ritual of mine that on the day of a concert, I do not play works by any artist or composer I am seeing or hearing, so I had to completely bypass my extensive Shostakovich playlist.  I had a lovely sing-along with the Talking Heads’ “Naive Melody/This Must Be the Place,” among others. And then…

This came up.  The song is Euphoria, by Delerium.

And how I’ve loved and I have served, and I have sinned but I have learnt
As long as you are true to the life that you live, this is the time to feel love
I feel a stirring deep within, slowly picking up momentum
Like the tide coming in to shore, over and under in its course
This feeling emblazed inside
Every nerve like a firefly
Hovering above me
Glow, glow, glowing, divine
Every nerve like a firefly
Every nerve like a firefly
This feeling emblazed inside
Every nerve like a firefly
I never want to lose what I have finally found
There’s a requiem, a new congregation
And it’s telling me go forward and walk under a brighter sky.

Video for Euphoria (Firefly).  Some obvious Toronto locations included.

Nice play, universe.

********

And in one final interesting tangent, Karina Canellakis, with her blonde ponytail, reminded me quite a lot of the Hamilton Philharmonic’s Gemma New.  New will be conducting the Shostakovich 5th in March with the TSO.  It’ll be interesting to watch, as I have only seen her lead much lighter works.

Women who conduct. And they seem to like Shostakovich.  How full of awesome is that?

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