The wonderful thing about music, more than any of the other arts, is that it means something different to each listener, often things that the composer could never have anticipated. And none of those meanings (even those we we do not like) are wrong. But the best music transcends our own contexts and interpretations, pulling us towards what the composer intended us to feel, to perceive, and to make those connections with our own time. Beethoven, in composing his ninth symphony, could never have guessed that one New Year’s Eve in 1989, his masterwork would be performed in the shadow of a now-crumbling Wall in Berlin, and that the word “Freude” in Schiller’s poem would be replaced with “Freiheit.” Yet the universal themes his music drew upon built bridges from his time to ours, and there can be no mistaking the themes of brotherhood and humanity that rang true both in his day and on that historic occasion.
The young musicians of the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra who performed Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony today were born nearly 100 years after the composer himself. None of them remembers the Soviet Union. It’s something they read about in history books. But we would be wrong to assume that as a result, they cannot reach in to find deep meaning in Shostakovich’s works. And we would be wrong to assume that an orchestra of young people in Toronto have lived lives free of strife or conflict or oppression.
Before the performance began, conductor Simon Rivard told the audience, “I am not going to tell you the history of this work or what it means. There are excellent program notes for that. I prefer to let the musicians speak.” And then he called forward a young woman, who stood up from her place among the second violins, and took the microphone. “I came to Canada in March, 2018,” she said, “as a refugee from Syria.” She told us of the struggles she had daily to go to school and to music lessons, to pursue the art she loved in the midst of gunfire and bombings, and daily fear for her life. “Shostakovich knew war,” she said. “He knew what this was like.”
And suddenly, my own perception of this work is indelibly altered. I will never hear it again quite the same way.
The Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra is made up of performers under the age of 22. Some of them are well under that age–the young first violinist who had received an award earlier in the program looked like he might be 13 or 14 (the age Shostakovich himself was when he entered the Petrograd (soon to be Leningrad) Conservatory. Yet they more than acquitted themselves in Shostakovich’s challenging work. Particularly tight was the first movement. Rivard led the orchestra through a reading that, to my ears, was at least the equal of many recordings I have heard, particularly in the solo passages by the woodwinds. “These kids are nailing it,” I thought, with a little shiver in one particularly moving passage. The brutal second movement started off at a fierce pace, but backed off a little bit, losing some intensity in the progress. It frequently felt like it was about to fly apart, but Rivard kept the orchestra on the edge of their chairs and held it together somehow.
If there was a weak movement, it was the third. The woodwinds once again stood out, as did the lush strings and the low brass, but I realized as I listened how much this movement is built around the repeated, lonely five-note horn motifs–and unfortunately, the horn player seemed to have persistent difficulty with the second note in the sequence, which I expect must be devilishly hard. It meant the dialogue between the horn and the orchestra lost some of its effectiveness, although the orchestra did make up for it in the intensity of the “waltz from hell” built on the DSCH motif played on bright strings and then augmented by the might of the percussion and low brass, and capped by the lovely violin solos at its conclusion. The final movement brought the orchestra back to the tight form of the first movement, although it was a little emotionally flat at times–the woodwind solos, while still pitch perfect, had lost a little bit of their expressiveness. But overall I was massively impressed by this young orchestra and their ability to tackle a work of this level of difficulty–and with Rivard’s ability to bring the best out in his musicians.
Next November, I’ll hear the TSO play the same work. I’m sure it will be superior from a technical sense. But I don’t think I’ll ever forget the story of a young refugee and what the work meant to her–or the pure exuberance of a little girl, about four years old, in the front row, bopping her way along to the second movement–yep, the one that is supposedly a portrait of Stalin. A girl in a pink dress found joy in that movement. She is not wrong.