The Fifth: The Second

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Jackson Pollock, Number 5 (1948)

Today, the fifth day since the fifth day, I saw the Fifth.

(Yes, I went there.  I can’t resist.  Three fives!)

As I mentioned in my 3/5 post (there it is again!) today I spent the afternoon with the Toronto Symphony, conducted by Gemma New, performing the Shostakovich 5th.

This is my second 5th.  In April of last year, I braved the tail end of an ice storm, where temperatures had risen just enough to turn the precipitation into rain, to drive to St. Catherines to see the Niagara Symphony perform it, the first Shostakovich I would see live since high school.  I nervously checked the website ahead of time. Not cancelled.  I allowed extra time to get there, gripping the steering wheel tightly.  I got caught behind snowplows.  I arrived 20 minutes ahead of time.  It was meant to happen.

I already had ordered the tickets for today’s concert then–the joys of being a subscriber.  It was bit of an act of hope and promise, ordering tickets for concerts that would not take place for nearly a year (or more, in the case of another ticket for a different 5th).  I had no idea at the time that between then and now, I’d see two other Shostakovich symphonies, one piano quintet, one string quartet, an octet, the piano and trumpet concerto, and the second cello concerto. I didn’t know that seeing that first one live would drive me into near obsession to see more, an obsession that shows no sign of abating (but is instead spreading to other composers).

The Toronto Symphony is a very different group than the regional orchestra I saw last April.  Roy Thompson Hall is a very different hall.  But there were some similarities.  Both concerts opened with a contemporary piece, followed by a concerto (today’s was a Mozart harp and flute concerto, with the TSO’s principals Kelly Zimba and Heidi van Hoesen Gorton as the soloists).  Both guest conductor Gemma New (who directs the Hamilton Philharmonic) and the NSO’s conductor are up-and-comers.

So, observations on the symphony itself:  New started the first movement a little slower that I am used to hearing, which made the change in tempo as the development section begins more dramatic.  What I really noticed in the opening section was the phrasing, as if the orchestra would sing out and then draw a collective breath (which I found myself drawing with them).  The movement moved dramatically to its climax and then slowed down with control without losing energy.  I had seats in the mezzanine this time, perfect for watching the orchestra, and as usual, I saw some things I did not realize before. For instance, there is a high passage that I had assumed was played by violins, as they play that motif earlier.  It’s not.  It’s played by the violas, which give it just a slightly darker tone.  Likewise, there’s a very low passage that I assumed was trombones;  it’s actually the horns, and the resulting colours are more mellow.

The standout for the second movement was the violin solo.  I had noticed that the regular concertmaster was not sitting in the first chair, and wondered why.  It was clearly an opportunity for a different player to play this very expressive solo, and he was spectacular.  (I believe this to have been assistant concertmaster Etsuko Kimura, but do not know that definitively.)  Again, the orchestra excelled in the contrast between quiet and loud moments, and walked that fine line between playing it straight and devolving into burlesque in this triple-time movement which can degenerate into schmaltz in the wrong hands.

The third movement is the make-or-break.  You can get through all of the other three movements on a very shallow level by playing up their extroverted nature–loud brass, percussion, and the like.  You can’t pull that with the third movement, where the brass do not play at all.  The woodwinds don’t even really come in until well into that movement.   The harmonies in this movement, particularly in the strings, are dense and lush, and New brought tremendous banked power in the quiet passages, with strings at a barely audible tremulo as various woodwinds sang out over the top, before resurging and coming to an enormous climax–the climax of the entire work, in my mind.  And New was up to the task.  That climax cuts out before the cellos enter with an incredibly anguished repeat of one of the earlier themes, and New held the orchestra in silence for just a moment longer than I’ve heard others do, making the listener absolutely crave the resolution.    If there’s one small complaint I had about this moment is that the violas overwhelmed the cellos, who are playing in their upper ranges.  To be fair, I’ve heard other orchestras do the exact same thing, and it was still a very effective reading of the third movement.

In an interesting twist,  the Fifth has prominent solos for flute, which sometimes plays along with the harp, and since the first half’s soloists were now back with the orchestra, that provided some interesting continuity with the very different Mozart presented in the first half.  This was particularly obvious in the third movement, with its plaintive flute and harp solo.

New attacked the fourth movement crisply and cleanly.  One thing I think she did well was to bring out the essential contradiction in this movement, with its “wrong notes” and “forced rejoicing.”  If an orchestra gets too jaunty with this movement, the subtlety can be lost, particularly in the ending.  At the same time it’s possible to go too far the other way.  If this piece works the way it is said to have worked, it must be multiple things at once, layers upon layers.  It needs to be brilliant and sparkling yet dark at the same time. I thought New did an excellent job of this, with the rapid tempo lending energy, but then playing up the sense of exhaustion in the final section, with only the pounding of the tympani and the bass drum shocking everyone back into reality at the end.

I suspect that every Fifth is going to be different.  I do expect to hear many more.  I will never not go hear this work, again, and again, and again. Back to the beginning.

******
The drive home brought this to me:

“Into The Fire” – Sarah Maclachlan

Mother teach me to walk again
Milk and honey so intoxicating

And into the fire
I’m reunited
Into the fire
I am the spark
Into the fire
I yearn for comfort

Open the doors that lead on in to Eden
Don’t want no cheap disguise
I follow the signs marked back to the beginning
No more compromise

And into the fire
I’m reunited
Into the fire
I am the spark
Into the fire
I yearn for comfort

Free the water that carries me to the sea
You I see as my security

And into the fire
I’m reunited
Into the fire
I am the spark
Into the fire
I yearn for comfort

I will stare into the sun until its light doesn’t blind me
I will walk into the fire until its heat doesn’t burn me
And I will feed the fire….

Back to the beginning. I’m reunited. I am the spark.

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