The Atheneum Hotel at the Chautauqua Institution

Five hours’ round trip for 31 minutes of music.

As has become apparent over the past year, my journeys to hear as many of the works of Dmitri Shostakovich performed live are only partially about the music.  That is the first principle, yes, but it becomes larger than that. The travel itself takes on significance; just as in seeing and hearing these works performed live stimulates all five senses, not just hearing, the actual trip takes me to new, undiscovered places that have so often lain just beyond the horizon of knowledge, perhaps glimpsed, flickering, in the distance but barely acknowledged.

I have driven down I-90 in Western New York hundreds of times, passing Exit 60 with its sign for the Chautauqua Institution.  There’s a penitentiary along that same stretch, and I thought for awhile that the signs referred to it, but why would a penitentiary–not exactly a tourist attraction–merit such a sign?  At the same time, I’d sometimes catch snippets of concerts from Chautauqua on public radio.  I never connected the two, until in my insatiable Googling for Shostakovich concerts I ran across the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra.  I assumed that Chautauqua was a festival, much like Tanglewood or Blossom; in a way, it is, but it is much more than that.  The Chautauqua Institution, as it turns out, is a nearly 150-year-old resort that started off as a training venue for Sunday School teachers and has become much, much more. The religious studies are still there, but there are also now educational programs for both adults and youth, with lectures, seminars, book clubs, and the like, as well as the outdoor activities more typical of a summer resort.  There is a theme each week, usually on some significant challenge facing society.  There are also summer schools for the arts–music, opera, dance, and theatre;  it turns out that a number of friends from the area either attended these or had family members who did.  It really is an institution–pun intended.  And each year, during their nine-week-long season, they are home to a symphony orchestra that playes 2-3 times a week.

The resort itself was fascinating to stroll through.  I arrived early to get a sense of the place, which was like a small town full of charming houses, all built around a central square. Cars were largely absent; bikes abounded. Various religious denominations–Presbyterian, Catholic, Methodist, Jewish–had their own quaint residences. I bought a cup of ice cream in one of the cafes. People were out strolling; kids played on the green.  The open-air amphitheatre (with its pew-like stalls and organ, I suspect it began its life as a place for religious observances) lay just off the main square. Down the hill along the waterfront, a huge historic hotel overlooked the marina.  It made me think of the vanished Muskoka resorts, but with an American flavour, one enhanced by the fact that the concert began with the national anthem.  It was clear that this place had sprung from the kind of intellectual liberal Christianity that I had grown up with–the kind that is, seemly, no longer fashionable in the United States, having been increasingly shunted aside by trendy evangelical prosperity Gospel megachurches. Now it seemed to me to be some sort of dreamland–a kind of summer camp for smart adults, one where one could attend lectures during the day and in the evening wander down the street to a symphony concert.  Or, in my case, drive two and a half hours.  Was it worth it?  It was already, before the first note sounded.


Whenever I hear a piece of music performed for the first time, I always research it ahead of time, even if it’s something I’ve listened to in recorded form repeatedly.  The Shostakovich 6th Symphony is–was–in the second tier of Shostakovich’s symphonies for me, and towards the low end of those, to boot, but as I am realizing, there is something in just about every single one of the fifteen that is worthwhile. The 6th is right in the middle of the sweet spot lasting from 1934-1943 where four out of the six symphonies I count as my favourites were composed, but somehow, it had never captured me as its two flanking works, the 5th and 7th, had.  I suspect that this had everything to do with its odd structure–one massive, slow movement (nearly 20 minutes long), followed by a fast movement, followed by a faster movement–both of which, together, are only about 2/3 the length of the first movement.  Critics have called it “a torso without a head” (slow movements are often the second or third, not the first movement), and superficially, it does seem incomplete.  And the change in tone between the first movement and the second two is jarring.  But the more I read–and then listened–I realized that that was the whole point. Shostakovich did not just throw together his symphonies from odd movements that were just laying about.   He gets into your head (or perhaps, puts you into his head).  As one article pointed out, just because he had “redeemed himself” with the “triumphant” response to “just criticism” that was the 5th Symphony, sunshine and kittens and unicorns did not necessarily follow.  This was 1939.

Here’s what the composer himself said about it: “The musical character of the Sixth Symphony will differ from the mood and emotional tone of the Fifth Symphony, in which moments of tragedy and tension were characteristic. In my latest symphony, music of a contemplative and lyrical order predominates. I wanted to convey in it the moods of spring, joy, youth.” 

And once again, Dmitri Dmitrievich is playing word games with us–because the entire Largo movement is, to my ear, the musical embodiment of nervous tension–building, trembling, releasing, but never quite resolving.  That’s what those two following movements are there to do–although they do not erase the enormity of the desolation the listener has just come through.  The rollicking, burlesque final movement, with its William Tell allusions and Big Top ending, is there to convince the uninitiated that Shostakovich has, indeed, written something about spring, joy, and youth, but what he leaves out is that you need to get through winter first, through the end of the Largo, morendo–dying away.

All of this I realized as I listened to the performance on a summer night in the open air, as the light in the sky died away, sapphire blue as the performance began.  In an odd coincidence it turned out that the conductor, Rossen Milanov, was the very same conductor who led the Columbus Symphony in the Shostakovich 7th last January;  it turns out that leading this orchestra is what he does with his summer vacation.  The orchestra, dressed all in summer whites, had in the first half taken the audience through Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (which has that famous bit–you know the one, the one on all the “Greatest Hits” compilations.) So lots of stereotypical Russian flair and virtuosity. And I saw again the genius of Shostakovich.  Plant the 6th in the second half of the concert, after something more traditionally rousing, and you could pull one over on the unsuspecting audience.

One of the particular joys of the 6th is that there are few controversies about how fast or how slow any particular movement is to be played.  It’s hard to get wrong, so long as your woodwind section is up to the challenge. After the performance I was moved to come back to better understand, by following along in a score in a YouTube video, how Shostakovich accomplishes this. The movement itself starts off in common time (4/4), but through entrances on off beats, use of triplets (some of them tied) in combination with duple figures, and then, increasingly, shifting time signatures (starting off with a 5/4 measure thrown in), Shostakovich keeps the listener off kilter, searching in vain for a pulse.   The major two motifs are based around a somewhat lyrical, flowing one  built around minor third and a second motif that fragments that lyricism  with a trilled diminished seventh.   No other Shostakovich symphony movement, at least that I can recall, is chock full of trills–both loud ones (in that diminished seventh motif) and incredibly quiet, barely discernible ones in the center section of the movement,  usually in the violas.  The loudest climax in the first movement occurs when, after a trumpet screams out the opening theme, the trilling strings start to descend down the scale, accompanied by the tympani, and the French horns calm the trembling with a loud, uneasy passage.

As one enters this wilderness, there is a warning chord–or rather, a single note, a low E sounded on the harp and contrabassoon with the support of one strike on the tam-tam, perhaps the bleakest sound you will ever hear, so out of place it seems, falling like a drop of water into a deep well. Almost all of the quiet passages are built around yet more trilling in the strings on a single, extended note along with a wandering, lost woodwind passage winding its way over the top. English horn, flutes, clarinet, oboe, and violins all take their turns in wandering plaintively around wondering where the bassline went.  It’s when the trilling finally infects the celesta (whose only job in the entire movement is to augment the trilling on the note of B in octaves) that the listener realizes there is finally a way out of the frozen wasteland. And then the horns sound, this time in a kind of absolution before the first motif returns, this time with a more lyrical accompaniment in the low strings, before the movement concludes.

It was only in hearing this played live that I truly grasped the way that central quiet section holds the listener for what seems like forever in nervous suspense as the various soloists wander about, looking for something that I’m not entirely convinced they find so much as resign themselves to just dealing with it and moving out of the desolation.  I sat transfixed, hanging onto each note, ever-mindful of the barely-perceptible buzz of the strings, wanting to live in this world of sound forever at the same time as wanting to find resolution.  It’s a fascinating trick, one that makes this slow movement that barely moves at all so incredibly riveting.

In the second and the third movements, Rossen Milanov did a spectacular job of bringing forth the rhythm and the humour that we’d just spent twenty minutes looking for.  His expressive left hand and crisp baton work brought a smile to my face more than once.  That final movement is truly fun–and so not 1939, where everyone was expected to be thinking of the heroic, Soviet future now that their great friends and allies the Nazis had invaded Poland (in September, in fact, just when this symphony was composed.) Fun was an act of subversion of its own, but no one could ever claim that ending was formalist.

In just one performance, I had come to love and understand this symphony,  for what it was and is.  It will be, for me, ever tied to this place, its winter bleakness blooming in the warm early summer air of late June, as stars winked into visibility in the darkening sky, as lights winked on here and there down below.  After the concert, the skies now full black, I walked back through the streets, where warm light now glowed in the windows.  Somewhere close, the strains of a string quartet trickled out, now loud, now dying away…