I am exhausted.
What I have discovered in the past few days is just how important to me time to not only process things I have heard, seen, or read, but also how much I am coming to absolutely need to put those thoughts into words. I crave it, and until I can do it, I feel unquiet, out of sorts, unfulfilled.
Today’s thoughts are about the arc of a life.
1. Opus 147
What might I be doing the month before I die? Dmitri Shostakovich was writing the Viola Sonata, opus 147. Composed mostly while he was in hospital or at his dacha and not allowed visitors, it’s the only work Shostakovich wrote for the viola, specifically the violist Fyodor Druzhinin. On July 5, 1975, he indicated to Druzhinin that he had completed the work, and that “he had to go to the hospital for awhile, but that they could talk by phone” while the score was copied. It was ready on August 6. He never heard those notes played anywhere but inside his head, dying three days later.
If you believe all the stories, Shostakovich had been dying for close to 15 years from something or another–heart attacks; the “mysterious neurological disorder” that some posit was a form of polio, others, a slow-acting variant of ALS; and lung cancer . If you want to trace it back farther, you could make the argument that he had feared the end was near since those dark days of 1936-7, although in that case, certainly not due to any physical ailment. Or maybe all the way back to his teens, when he had lymph nodes removed due to tuberculosis. And there is a certain preoccupation with mortality with many of the works of his last 15 years. But at the same time these works are less depressing than deeply introspective, full layers upon layers of emotional meaning, drawing allusions and illusions through both oblique and straightforward to both his own music and the works of others. Compared to, say, the darkness of the 15th quartet, the Viola Sonata is a much more varied work, with its energetic second movement based on his abandoned opera The Gamblers and its third movement suggesting Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Shostakovich meant this, his last work, to honour the memory of that great composer, but with music that was “bright and clear.” Laurel Fay quotes a critical response to the work: “It is like the catharsis in tragedy; life, struggle overcoming, purification by light, exit into immortality,” and adds “He might have been offering a precis of the composer’s life.”
The concert itself was organized by the violist Esme Allen-Creighton, who I knew nothing of on that Thursday but now know so much more, thanks to this article about endings of a sort. Ms. Allen-Creighton is now a teacher at the Royal Conservatory of Music after, it seems, leaving much of her former life (including positions as a professor and a teaching artist with a major orchestra) behind to return to Toronto. She’s presented a TEDx talk on storytelling in music, and likes to blend performances of music with literature. And in this performance, that literature–poetry–was her own, inspired by both the pieces she was playing and the theme of “Forest Bathing,” a Japanese concept of contemplation amongst the trees (read about it here.) Before each movement of each piece (the concert included works by Schumann and Hindemith, with the Shostakovich the middle work), she read some of her own poetry, some of which contained the ghostly traces of the story of the composition of the piece, if one listened closely (and I did). What this led to was a fascinating and somewhat disconcerting play of imagery in my own mind during the performance–but I doubt I will ever think of that final movement of anything else but the fever dream of an emaciated wolf, struggling to save one of her cubs as the other dies, in the grey shadows of a shocked landscape and encroaching civilization. She is dying. She knows she is dying, but she goes forward.
Driving home, after, down through a valley faintly remembered, looking up, the Luminous Veil shining above, sapphire blue, that which would save those who yearn for death from its darkness, that final E, never heard, stretching out into infinity.
2. Opus 102
The following night, I basked in the promise of youth with the Royal Conservatory Orchestra. It was not simply the fact that the orchestra is made up of undergraduate and graduate students at the Glenn Gould School of Music, or that the soloist, Linda Ruan, is a young pianist who won the chance to play a concerto with the orchestra as part of an annual competition–it was the music itself: Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto #2, written for his own son Maxim (who went on to be a conductor rather than a pianist), who performed it on his 19th birthday in order to gain admittance to the Moscow Conservatory. For his son, Shostakovich composed two bright, sparkling, exuberant outer movements surrounding a slow movement that reminds me of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto–dreamy, moonlit, but understated. According to the program notes, the piece includes all kinds of nods to the exercises undertaken by a young pianist and is not technically difficult–but at the same time, the final movement includes a wonderfully spiky section in 7/8 with all kinds of challenges for both the pianist and orchestra. Shostakovich, in typical fashion, both denigrated his own composition–but continued to play it, making at least one recording himself, one which moved me to tears on a dark evening on a train when it caught me unawares.
In a pre-concert talk, the Dean of the school discussed some of the challenges of the piece for both orchestra and performer, including the interesting phenomenon of winds which are almost always just slightly late (and which play on the off beats in that spiky third movement). It presents a real challenge for the pianist, particularly one with not a lot of experience playing with an orchestra. As mentioned, Linda Ruan had won the right to play the concerto with an orchestra in competition, and although she has a few concerto credits to her name, she is not currently a touring performer and has just gained admittance to Julliard for her graduate studies.
Ruan brought a bright and brilliant sound to her performance and a great deal of energy–so much energy that in the first movement, her hair came loose and she played fully half of the movement with it hanging in her face. That energy served her well in the sparkling first and third movements, but I found her treatment of the second movement a little lacking in the lyricism that some other interpreters have brought out. Perhaps, she was just echoing the composer’s own interpretation–he notoriously often played his own works on the fast and dry side. But her technical prowess was on display throughout, and the orchestra seemed to embrace the challenges of the piece with only a few minor issues in the acoustically wonderful (but occasionally unforgiving) Koerner Hall. And it could not help but recall for me the witty, sparkling First Piano Concerto, on the schedule just two days’ hence.
“Koerner Hall floats atop hundreds of rubber pads that absorb vibrations fro adjacent teaching studios, mechanical rooms, and the hundreds of subway trains passing under the Royal Conservatory every day.” Warm, beautiful wood surrounded me, And above, the Baillie Veil, augmenting and reflecting the sound of youth, the energy, the passion, the future.
3. Opus 35
Stop me if you have heard this one before.
I have. But it was in no way the same.
Shostakovich wrote hist First Piano Concerto, or the Concerto for Piano and Trumpet, in 1933. He liked to tell the tale of how he first set out to write a trumpet concerto, but the piano gradually took over. If the Second Concerto was for his son, this one, written when the memories of playing piano for silent films were not yet distant, is all his. This was Shostakovich at the apex of his young confidence, experimental, and in many ways radical. He’s just written his second opera, has been composing all manner of ballet music, and hanging out with some of the most avant-garde theatrical directors of the era. There are perhaps a few shadows of what is to come as the 30s progress, but little indication that his status as one of the leading lights of Soviet music will do anything other than continue to explode. He is said to have adored this work and performed it often throughout his life.
And I’ve heard it played live before, with a small chamber orchestra of perhaps 20 musicians. It’s scored for string orchestra, along with the solo trumpet. I said at the time I was left with the distinct feeling of a jam session in someone’s house, especially in the third movement, with sections that remind me of a ragtime musician banging out a few tunes on a slightly out-of-tune upright. But this was different. The Niagara Symphony brought a full-sized string orchestra to bear on the work. It would take a pianist of maturity and presence to face them down.
Anastasia Rizikov, she of the gorgeous flowing garnet-coloured gown and sparkling earrings, is only 19. Yet she is clearly in so many ways a fully mature performer who brought her own interpretation to the work. Throughout, she was unafraid to experiment with tempo and dynamics to bring out nuance, humour, and virtuosity in the work–said to be quite technically complex. I have seldom seen a performer so engaged in the music she was playing, her face full of expression, her lips often moving along as she navigated particularly tough passages. Some of her dynamics were idiosyncratic–soft and gentle where others have played loudly. And in the passages where she was not actually playing, it was clear she was still engaged and still performing. No moment made this more clear that my favourite moment in the entire concerto, the point in the third movement when the trumpet begins to play a catchy tune, only to have the piano respond with a chord that has been described as “the pianist falling asleep on the keyboard” but which I have always seen as the pianist objecting loudly and comically to what the trumpet is playing. Rizikov sat in front of the piano, hands in her lap, almost motionless while the trumpet played, only to explode into the response, her face clearly showing the mischief in her fingers, drawing audible chuckles and visible smiles from the audience.
If there was one complaint about the performance, it was that I preferred the intimacy of the first performance I heard. There were times when the piano seemed subsumed by the pure mass of the strings (which worked beautifully in the other three works on the concert). They also managed to overwhelm even the trumpeter in a couple of the sections. One interesting choice: trumpeter Ira Zingraff (whose parents I was sitting next to) performed the plaintive second movement solo with a mute. I am not sure other renditions I have heard of this work have done likewise, but it gave this performance a pronounced jazzy feel. I shall have to listen to a few more recordings….
The veil this time was aural, in the form of Pärt’s Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten. Britten and Shostakovich were friends, despite the fact neither spoke the other’s language–unless you consider music as a language, which, of course, it is. They died only about a year apart.
The last was first and the First last, a passage from the end to the beginning. The words, held close, now released, to be heard at last. I will sleep now, and their presages will not disturb me further. And next weekend, I shall take up the 10th.
I have mentioned only one of the other works I heard in these three concerts, but the Friday concert also featured Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring–which is nothing short of astounding live. Even after over 100 years, it feels like it could still start a riot. I’ll likely give it its own post.