No, this is not about one of my weird dreams.
I keep finding the most amazing Shostakovich concerts through pure luck. Or synchronicity. Whatever it is, I’ll take it.
It was not quite a year ago when my Facebook feed dropped the Shostakovich 5th into my lap, just down the QEW, the one I braved the last vestiges of an epic ice storm to attend. They’ve piled up since that. The ones that took longer planning, like the Seventh Symphony in Columbus and the Eighth in Detroit. And then those which manifested themselves a few weeks–or even, a few days–ahead of time, like the First Piano Concerto at the Niagara-on-the-Lake festival associated with the Shaw, the op. 57 Piano Quintet which showed up in an ad in the Hamilton Spec (for free), and the performance of the Third Quartet at a small church in the middle of semi-rural Ontario, in December, of all months.
And this one. All because I was curious what was up with a Columbus orchestra that was a bit of an old friend (viz. my last post). I think it was mid-February, in the midst of my “how many concerts could I possibly go to within the space of three weeks?” run.
What was up was the Shostakovich Chamber Symphony, op. 110a. It was one of many works on an all-Russian program set for April 7. Oh well, I thought. Bit of a drive for that. But then I saw it, all by itself, a second performance on April 5. Something called “Naked Classics.”
As creative partner (and violinist) Vadim Gluzman put it last night, naked….what?
“Explore classical music in a fresh and approachable format!” read the blurb on the website. “We will deconstruct a masterwork–using graphics, excerpts, and interview to reveal fascinating aspects of the piece, and the composer’s life and times. In the second half of the concert, the piece is performed in its entirety.” The blurb went on to indicate that it would be interesting to both newcomers to classical music and seasoned listeners wanting to know more.
Alrighty, then! No nudity would be required. Just laying bare the bones of a piece–that piece– before getting to hear it played. Did I just die and go to heaven?
I bought a ticket. Even if the presentation were hokey, or dreck, or facile, I’d still get a chance to hear a piece of music I have been yearning to hear played live. I booked a vacation day, and drove down yesterday.
The concert took place at the Southern Theater, which was the very first historic theatre to be restored in Columbus. When I arrived, the gorgeous gold arch above the stage framed a screen and a stage with chairs for an orchestra of about two dozen musicians.
What followed was pure magic.
As I found out later, Paul Rissmann, who is the mastermind behind the Naked Classics series, has been doing these concerts since 2007 all around the world with some of the world’s finest orchestras. He’s a composer (particularly for children), a saxophonist, and holds the intriguing title of Animateur for the London Symphony. As I understand it, this was not his first visit to Columbus. The large turnout at the concert revealed an audience that had clearly come back for more. And I could see why.
Every single part of the presentation held my attention. I’m probably at the far end of the bell curve as far as knowledge about Shostakovich goes, but everything Rissmann presented seemed fresh and fascinating. I both learned new things, and also wanted to shout “Yes, yes, someone else noticed that thing!” in other parts. I’m picky about visual presentations (the kind we usually call “PowerPoint”)–this one hit it out of the park, supporting the lecture (if “lecture” is the right word, which I’m sure it isn’t) and the music.
The concert opened with what Rissmann termed an “appetizer before the main course”–a polka by the Soviet-German composer Alfred Schnittke. I knew almost nothing about Schnittke besides having seen his name a couple of times, but the rollicking polka was chock full of tonalities and colour that had Shostakovich’s stamp all over them. And the orchestra, lead by the charismatic violinist Vadim Gluzman, was all-in with expressive body language. Holy cats, that was fun! Rissmann explained afterwards that Schnittke had been very much influenced by Shostakovich (and a look at his Wikipedia page confirmed that fact.) So–the presentation hasn’t even started and I’ve learned something.
The presentation itself first focused on Shostakovich’s own history–his early years, his education, his rise to prominence, his fallouts (both of them) with Stalin and his policies, and a little of the controversies surrounding the publication of Volkov’s Testimony. This is territory I know like the back of my hand, yet Rissmann brought it to life, comparing Shostakovich’s tight management of his public image to modern social media celebrities–but noting that he did it “to stay alive.” And so, the audience was brought into 1960, when the Eighth Quartet was composed. Rissmann mentioned the official narrative (that it had been composed in Dresden by Shostakovich, deeply moved at the damage the city had suffered in WWII) as well as the secret one (that the Quartet was, in fact, deeply personal–Rissmann mentioned that this was not the first time Shostakovich had been to Dresden–he was there just after the war, where the damage would have been more substantial). Rissmann also interviewed Gluzman, who had grown up in the USSR, about life there, and hearing his story about how conversations you didn’t want anyone to hear took place in the kitchen, as far from the phone as possible (with a pillow place over it to be sure) was illuminating. Gluzman, when asked whether he knew even then that there were layers of meaning in Shostakovich’s music, said “I think I always knew.” Rissmann also talked a little bit about the orchestration of the piece by Barshai.
We gradually worked through the piece with the orchestra playing excerpts to illustrate various points. Rissmann illustrated how the D-S-C-H motif works (with a couple of hilarious examples of other possible musical monograms–the one he had put together for Sarah Huckabee Sanders was absolutely perfect) and pointed out–something I’d never noticed–that the monogram works in English, too (if you do what I know of as abbreviation by contraction)–so the S-C-H expands to ShostakoviCH. He also discussed all of the several quotations in the work. In the first movement, he played the beginning of the First Symphony and then how it appears in the work, so transformed to be unrecognizable. He also pointed out the long-short-short note pattern–in speech we call them dactyls–and how this is associated with the music of warfare and conflict. And–he pointed out what I’ve found to be a characteristic trope in Shostakovich’s works–that is, a solo performed over top of a long, held note (often a very quiet one), which serves to highlight the solo. (That motif is everywhere in Shostakovich. The entire inner section of the first movement of the Sixth Symphony is built on that structure).
In the second movement, he discussed the theme borrowed from the second Piano Trio (the one written in memory of Ivan Sollertinsky). This is where Gluzman’s input was absolutely fascinating. It’s well known that this theme has a pronounced klezmer/Jewish feel to it (Sollertinsky was Jewish, and we know Shostakovich used such themes in a number of works), but Gluzman mentioned that the tune resembles greatly a Jewish folk dance called “Happiness.” Rissmann also mentioned how ambiguous Shostakovich was with his major and minor tonalities–where minor can be happy and major sad and the two can shift in an instant. He also talked to one of the violinists about a marking in the movement that helps to heighten tension in this incredibly brittle movement. There is a long section marked sul G for the first violins–that is, played only on the G string. These were notes as high as the C normally played on the A string. Not only does that darken the colour, playing on a shortened, thick string introduces extra tension into the sound. Wow.
In the third movement, the audience got to participate–by clapping along. (Yay! I’ve kind of played something by Shostakovich!). Rissmann pointed out the incredibly complex and shifting rhythms in this movement by putting a chart up on the screen and having us clap on each “1”. We went from 5 to 4 beats per measure twice, and then through a sequence shifting from 1 to 3 to 2 beats per measure, all within a few bars. (Did I mention my passionate love for weird time signatures? I was in heaven). Rissmann pointed out that in this movement the D-S-C-H theme actually expands to D-D-S-C-H (incorporating Shostakovich’s middle initial), which I had never noticed. He also talked to the orchestra’s first cellist about the quotes from the first Cello Concerto in this movement, and the ironic fact that the only instruments that do not get to play that theme are the cellos.
Oh, the fourth movement. Is that the sound of bombs dropping over the drone of aircraft, or is it the “knock, knock, knock” on the door that Shostakovich dreaded? (To quote Zoidberg, “Why not both?” Understanding Shostakovich should be thought of, in my opinion, in the same vein as medieval Biblical exegesis, with each passage having literal, metaphorical, anagogical, and tropological senses.) What was new here is some back story about the Russian revolutionary song quoted in the movement (“Exhausted by the hardships of prison”)–which may have been actually another Jewish folk song (possibly even written in the US about the “folks back home”) appropriated by the Communists. Rissmann also played the theme from Lady Macbeth that follows and then showed how Shostakovich atoned for slighting the cello earlier on with this gorgeous passage. (The one thing he didn’t do is to point out how the D-S-C-H motif entwines with these quotes and the use of the sustained quiet drone (or lack of one).
And after some excerpts from the final movement, which focused on how this movement completes the piece, it was time for cookies. I know I was hungry to hear the work played straight through, and the unexpected free cookies only amplified this.
The uninterrupted performance of the piece was entirely successful in conveying the essential multivalent nature of this work. The work was led by Gluzman as a player, without a conductor. While the chamber orchestra setting necessarily lessened the intimate feel a quartet would bring to the work, some things worked astoundingly well to augment the emotional impact in other ways. The body language Pro Musica exhibited in the opening piece was on display in abundance in this, the “main course,” with parts of the orchestra moving to emphasize particular notes or emphatic phrases in an extremely evocative manner. What was interesting to me was the use of solos in the piece. Key passages were given to the violin and cello. I’ve already mentioned the solo in the fourth movement for the cello, but what I have not mentioned is how the drone note and the “response” D-S-C-H phrase are a first violin solo–so one lone violin against the entire rest of the orchestra, almost inaudible, but also impossible to miss. This makes it even more obvious to me what is going on in that passage.
That’s also where I silently lost it–right at the six bars of silence, one tear sliding down the right side of my face, unbidden, but wholly expected.
At the end the notes died away, and Gluzman held the orchestra suspended in silence, for what seemed like an eternity, in the same way that Karina Cannellakis had held the DSO in suspension at the den of this piece’s soul sister, the Eighth Symphony. I wanted to live in that silence forever, dying away, morendo, into infinity.
And with that, a year of relentlessly chasing performances of anything by Shostakovich draws to a conclusion. The tally is: Fifth Symphony. the op. 11 Octet, the First Piano Concerto, the opus 57 piano quintet, the Third Quartet, the Seventh Symphony, the Eighth Symphony, the Second Cello Concert, the Fifth Symphony (again) and finally, this Chamber Symphony. Ten performances, nine pieces.
No, I have no plans to stop. I will hear both piano concertos on a single weekend at the end of the month and the Tenth Symphony the week after. I will scour the summer festival listings, of course. Then in September, the 13th Symphony, and in November, the Tenth Symphony (again) and hopefully the Violin Concerto.
There are still orchestras that have not released their 2019-2020 lineups, too. There are still mysteries to reveal. I am still chasing the unicorn that is the Fourth Symphony.
No, I’m not obsessed. I’m focused.
About that title: I don’t really dream of naked people, except maybe myself, in an “oops, I completely forgot to put on clothes and just noticed! way.
I still remember that dream involving Margaret Thatcher and the surfing chicken from two decades ago, though.
Incidentally, if you Google “Naked Classics” for videos, there are about a page and half of Rissmann’s previous presentations before you get to the porn.