Today on my own personal episode of “Wheel of Fortune”, the word is “antepenultimate.” That is, the thing before the second to the last. That’s what the title of this piece was supposed to be. It isn’t.
You can do all the research you want, you can have a catchy title that goes with what you think you’re going to be writing, and then Fortune’s wheel can twist, and twist, and turn again, and suddenly you aren’t at all where you expected to be. Suddenly the key might shift–or, with a few well-placed accidentals, you might leave tonality completely. And then suddenly, just as unexpectedly, you find yourself in a scene from a light opera, fluffy and vapid (or is it really?) and you wonder just where all the gloom and death went. And then you realized the question you had posed two days ago…is unexpectedly answered? Gloriously so? And then, just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, something breaks catastrophically. The wheel of fortune turns again. (Somehow, you’ve managed to evade interrogation because your interrogator has been arrested. That happened.)
I think I have some inkling what it must have been like to be Dmitri Shostakovich.
Not that I hadn’t before–but it’s all been in neat, tidy packages. Over here, we have the sparkling wit of the young composer, before a certain article in Pravda changed everything. Over here, he’s writing during wartime, for a friend who has died, but possibly with the atrocities of the Holocaust in mind. Perhaps. Over here, he’s paying the bills, writing some crowd-pleasing fluff piece…a little song, a little dance, a little vodka down your pants. And over here, the antepenultimate–the one before second last, Opus 145, one year before his death, some from column A, a little of column B, a little of something he had written when he was nine, and words by Michaelangelo. Yes, that Michaelangelo. (Did you know he wrote poetry?)
The concert where all of these things were on one program was entitled Russian Salon: Ages & Stages, presented by Off Centre Music, which has apparently been doing salon-style musical performances in Toronto for close to 25 years. These performances seem to have a very strong family component: Russian-born pianist Boris Zarankin and his wife Inna Perkis (another pianist) are the co-founders, and as I would discover, other family members are also heavily involved. In many ways, this kind of salon is an old Russian tradition, where friends might gather together to play some chamber music, maybe some popular tunes or a famous piece arranged for piano, four hands, or maybe to tackle a weightier piece. Shostakovich is thought to have debuted the works he did not dare share with the outside world in these sorts of intimate settings. The fact that there were a lot of Russian speakers in the audience added an extra air of authenticity.
I had come for that antepenultimate, the 1974 Suite on Verses of Michaelangelo Buonarotti, the third-to-last thing Shostakovich ever wrote. I found the concert while browsing through the concert database on WholeNote; Lady Fortune had certainly yanked her wheel in my favour this time. To put it lightly, this work is a rarity, a gem I had never expected to hear live. (In fact, it was noted that, so far as the concert organizers knew, it had never been presented in Toronto before.) The program listing was rather vague as to what else would be performed, aside from another song cycle, The Nursery, by Modest Mussorgsky. I rather expected that perhaps the concert would start with that work and end with the Shostakovich. I did note that since a violinist and a cellist were listed, perhaps we might get some non-vocal music. Did I dare to hope maybe they’d do something else by Shostakovich? Didn’t matter. The Suite on Verses of Michaelangelo was more than worth a $50 ticket on its own.
Imagine, to my surprise–and utter delight– to find that the program featured not just one, but four Shostakovich performances. Not only would we hear the Verses, but also four of the Opus 34 Preludes (that would be the sparkling wit), three songs from Moskva, Cherjomushki (a 1958 operetta about the miracle of Soviet block-style apartment buildings–that would be the fluff piece)….and…and…
On Thursday, the 75th anniversary of D-Day, I had listened to the E minor Piano Trio, Opus 67, which was written 75 years ago as well, and had wondered whether I’d ever hear it live–because while quartet performances are rarities in Toronto, trios are absolute unicorns.
And there it was, the concluding work on the program.
I almost wept for joy.
The first half of the program: The first five songs of the Verses, a short piano interlude, and then the other six. Dr. Julie Zarankin gave an outstanding introduction to the entire concert, where she noted that the Verses were in some ways considered by Shostakovich to be a kind of 16th symphony, especially after he had orchestrated it towards the end of 1974. (His 14th had also been a song cycle). She warned the audience that it was a challenging work, partially because of its atonality (I would argue that the work could more properly be described as lacking a tonal centre, although that is perhaps quibbling). She also noted what I had previously read about the work, that it was a personal, artistic, and (to some extent) political testament, with a great deal of subtle linkages between the eleven songs. I own three recordings of the work: One in its original form, one in the orchestrated version, and one that replaces the Russian translation of Michaelangelo’s text with the original Italian. I’ve read all of the liner notes to those, and I also read this insightful piece by blogger Susan Scheid as I prepared for the concert yesterday, which notes a tendency to sometimes get so bogged down in all of the hidden meanings in Shostakovich’s work that you miss the power of the music itself. So…let’s get to that.
Baritone Tyler Duncan was absolutely transcendent in this performance. He was helped in this by the Trinity-St. Paul’s performance space, which seemed to create a special resonance of both power and intimacy all at the same time, and pianist Boris Zarankin, reminding the listener that Shostakovich was a pianist. Voice and piano were very definitely equal partners in this performance, as they are meant to be. The fifth song, Gnev (Anger), after the relative wistfulness of the preceding songs (Truth, Morning, Love and Separation), brought the first half of the cycle to a thunderous conclusion as Duncan opened up the power of his voice as Zarankin banged out enormous chords.
Before we continued on our way, young pianist Vikas Chari performed four of the Opus 34 preludes with a maturity and expression that belied his young years (he seems to be in his mid teens.) It did not hurt that he bore a superficial similarity to a portrait of the young Shostakovich that was displayed onstage, along with a spectacularly shiny blue shirt and tie ensemble.
As Duncan resumed his performance, I was particularly struck by the eighth song – Creativity–with its percussive piano work evoking Michaelangelo’s hammer. In constrast, the ninth song, Night, where the text tells of the creation of an angel in stone, was positively ethereal. The tenth song, Death, brings us back to the themes that opened the work in Truth (the initial song), but Death is not the end. No, Shostakovich has two epitaphs to share in Immortality, the final song–which starts with a tinkling, childlike theme that Shostakovich composed when he was nine. The lyrics, which talk of the transcendence of immortality–the ability to live on in the thoughts of friends–contest with this rather trite theme, and eventually, the voice and the piano come together in seriousness…until, at the very end the child returns. And it was in this particular final song that Duncan truly excelled in conveying a depth of dynamic and feeling that allowed the performance to end gently, yet powerfully.
Oh, but we are not done yet. Next, tenor Ernesto Ramirez and soprano Ilana Zarankin (the fourth of the Zarankin family to make an appearance) delightfully performed three songs from Moscov, Cherjomushki. The third of these, a song between newlyweds unable to live together because they do not have their own apartment (where they dream of what such a place would be like) was completely charming, revealing the fundamental question: How could the man who composed the powerful, profound work we’d just heard also compose…this? And have it be good? It’s easy to forget that in his early years, Shostakovich wrote a ballet about a soccer team and his first opera about about a nose that, having been inadvertently cut off, gets a job in the civil service. Even in his final symphony, he drops in a complete quote of the main theme from Rossini’s William Tell Overture just to mess people up. I suspect that had he lived in the West, Shostakovich might have become something like a Leonard Bernstein. He would have totally written a Broadway musical.
The second half of the concert felt very much more like a salon than the first half. First, there was Mussorgsky’s song cycle written from the perspective of a young child (including fears of boogeymen, claims that Nanny is mean, and nightime prayers that include every relative the child can possibly think of. Next, a four-hands piano version of the Waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, and then the same composer’s “Where? Where have you gone, golden days of my youth” from the opera Eugene Onegin. And then we reached the ultimate piece. Boris Zarankin was joined by two young performers, both with dark ponytails: cellist Julie Hereish and violinist Sheila Jaffe, for the Trio in E minor, Op. 67.
Why do I love this work? There are several reasons, but a significant one is that it’s dedicated to Shostakovich’s friend Ivan Sollertinsky, who had died the year before. The final movement, with its klezmer-sounding theme, would be quoted in Shostakovich’s 8th quartet. The third movement was played at his funeral. It’s a brilliant work that manages that special mix of melancholy and energy that Shostakovich absolutely excels at. And the trio of performers revealed aspects of the piece that had not been apparent in recordings. The first of these was how incredibly gossamer–and mindblowingly difficult–the harmonics the cello plays unaccompanied to start the work are. Bowing techniques and some of the dynamic shifts were also revelations. But mostly, I just listened, particularly through that aching third movement, deeply moved. And then onto the fourth movement, dancelike (perhaps deathcamp victims, made to dance on their graves before being shot? Perhaps.) And then…
A sound I recognize, even though it’s been years. If you’re a string player and you’ve ever had a string blow on you while playing, you will never forget that sound. That is precisely what I heard. But the violinist kept playing. Did my ears deceive me?
I spotted a tell-tale fragment hanging from the pegbox of her violin. I heard exactly what I heard. Yet, she played on. The sound darkened a bit. It’s clearly the E string that’s gone. She played on despite that–which means, on the fly, adapting all the fingerings she’s likely practiced over and over on that higher string for to work on the A string, pitched a fifth lower. Other than an intensification of her gaze, she gave no indication that anything at all is wrong. I listened, transfixed. The notes are all there, and played with intensity and artistry, supported by the cellist and pianist.
It’s only at the very end–when the work came to a quiet end, with strummed, plucked chords, that I heard just three notes where there should be four. No matter. It’s perfect. Gloriously, imperfectly, accidentally perfect.
(How did she do it? The program notes that Sheila Jaffe is “widely appreciated for her versatility, skill, and openness.” It turns out that she is also a violist. Violists know, probably more than others, how to play high notes on the A string).
Concert magic can be made in many ways. A gorgeous performance of a deeply personal work. The vitality of a young performer. The joy of levity and humour after the contemplation of mortality. Or…the embodiment of grace under pressure. All of this, happened upon purely by accident, through relentless Googling.
Fortune favours the bold.
Weird number fu: it turns out that like the Beethoven 5th, this opus 67 also can be seen to have a connection with my birthdate, in the the year (’67), the number of players (three) and the key (E minor, fifth letter). Cue the spooky music.