Beneath the Curling Tendrils


Severance Hall. From the very earliest days of my interest in classical music, weekly broadcasts of the Cleveland Orchestra on the weekends were part of my life. They always began with the sound of a pre-concert murmur and then, “From Severance Hall, the Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of Lorin Maazel, presents a concert of….” To me, the young violinist, Severance Hall was the pinnacle of classical music. It was no mistake that my most treasured possession became a complete set of the Beethoven symphonies conducted by the legendary George Szell, who led the orchestra for nearly a quarter century. I remember imagining what this legendary hall must look like and picturing soaring, vast columns, perhaps a little like St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

I am almost certain it was during one of these concerts that I first heard the name of Dmitri Shostakovich–and didn’t like his music at all. For years, his name to me meant that weird 20th century stuff that was dissonant. Now, forty years later, it still does, but that’s no longer a minus.

It also took me the same 40+ years to finally see this legendary place, and it made perfect sense to me that the program would not only feature Shostakovich’s 1st Violin Concerto (discovered less than two years ago) but also the Beethoven 3rd Symphony–the Eroica– the first full-scale symphonic work I fell in love with all those years ago, but had never actually seen performed.  I had listened to the Szell recording over and over and over again.  Finally, to hear it in the place where that recording was made!

But the Shostakovich was what drew me. The Violin Concerto #1, op. 77 (or 99) was composed in 1948.  The composer was allegedly in the midst of composing the cadenza between the third and fourth movements when he learned of the famous Zhdanov decree denouncing him (and several other composers) as ‘formalists’.  Famously, he did not change a thing, but finished the concerto and shelved it until 1955, after Stalin’s death, when the climate was more favourable.  Certainly, the work was full of elements that were the antithesis of “Soviet Realism.”  Ostensibly in A minor, the tonality of the first movement in particular is all over the place.  Dubbed Nocturne, this movement barely reaches forte at its climax, and is full of those Shostakovichian “special effects” instruments–low woodwinds, harp, tam-tam, and celesta.  David Hurwitz dubs it “twelve minutes of pure atmosphere.”  The second movement, a relentless, ‘demonic’ scherzo, features the first appearance of Shostakovich’s personal DSCH (D, E flat, C, B flat) motif, as well as a theme with a pronounced Jewish flavour, accompanied by tambourines. (This is just one of many things that would likely not have pleased Stalin had the work been released).  The third movement–there are no words. Suffice it to say that no one in the 20th century wrote a better passacaglia than Shostakovich–and this is his best–in the words of Hurwitz, “(it) achieves a passion and nobility of spirit virtually unequaled in the violin concerto literature.” The cadenza develops out of the dissipating passacaglia and transitions into the fourth movement, the Burlesca, with more Jewish harmonies.

I had a chance to attend the pre-concert discussion, held in the downstairs recital hall, with Timothy Cutler from the Cleveland Institute of Music, who reminded me of many of these points but also added to my understanding of the piece.  He played several excerpts of the world premiere recording with violinist David Oistrakh, particularly to isolate the use of the DSCH motif–very, very helpful as I had never been able to put my finger on precisely where the motif is placed in the piece. He also played the rather ‘ugly’, as he put it, 34 note passacaglia theme on the piano, then showed how the violinist utterly transforms and magnifies it. It was a wonderful introduction to the work, both for those who already know and adore it as well as those not inducted into its mysteries.  (Incidentally, moving on to the Beethoven, Cutler spent some time showing how in the fourth movement, Beethoven does precisely what Shostakovich sometimes gets slammed for–quoting himself.  And he did it in a big way–three other works from around the same time as the Third Symphony all include the exact same theme.

Waiting for the pre-concert talk

And then, I went upstairs, and took my seat–and realized I had stepped into an Art Deco masterpiece.  Severance Hall, completed in 1931, has a Neoclassical exterior, but inside, in the auditorium, shades of champagne are highlighted by foliage, including lotus blossoms in brushed aluminum leaf.  Per the Wikipedia entry:  “The auditorium of Severance Hall…glistens with silvery aluminium leaf, a defining modern material of the Art Deco period. The shallow domed ceiling is entirely patterned by undulating, flowing leafy tendrils and swirls, reportedly inspired by Elizabeth Point Duchesse lace wedding dress, fanning up in giant stylized papyrus shapes either side of the proscenium, and from stalks around the top tier of seating. Recessed lighting makes the whole ceiling glow.”   Interestingly enough, the present look of the main hall dates only from a restoration completed in 2000 to solve a few acoustical issues in the hall.

The view from my seat:

The Cleveland Symphony was not by its longtime director Franz Welser-Möst for this concert, but by the young Czech guest conductor Jakub Hruša, chief conductor of the Bamberg Symphony.  The soloist was the Armenian violinist Sergey Khachatryan, and he had my attention from the moment he walked on stage wearing a simple black shirt and sporting the stereotypical Armenian fabulous, thick, hair.  This man could smolder without even trying.  But how would he be with the concerto?

I walked into the intermission wanting to immediately run out and buy a recording of Khachatryan playing this concerto.  Why?  He perfectly captured the essence of all four of the movements of this work, and his interpretation of the cadenza….well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Nocturne movement, as mentioned above, is incredibly atmospheric, not only in its use of the “special effects” instruments, but also some favourite Shostakovich techniques–the sustained low note above which a melody wanders, gossamer-like, the quiet passages so quiet that the listener must strain to hear them at all–despite the massive orchestra.  This movement was a wonderful example of how hearing the work live absolutely transcends anything you can hear in a recording–since you see the soloist’s expressions and body language as part of the performance.  And my attention did not wander at all from the soloist at all during the entire length of the performance.  You also cannot simply turn up the volume when hearing the piece live; instead, the audience must turn itself down to give it its due.  If there was one criticism of the program I would make it would be that perhaps a short, louder hors-d’oevre piece might have been offered to get the audience settled.   (The orchestra also did not tune on stage–something I found interesting).

The second movement was suitably entertaining and frenetic, with Khachatryan again adding to the effect with body language (at one point having to clear his bow of a couple of broken hairs). I noticed here in particular something had started to notice in the first movement–Khachatryan’s incredible phrasing work.  His glissandi were like little licks of flame firing the momentum of the movement. And then the third movement broke my heart, as it is designed to do, the violin soloist soaring above the orchestra moving through the passacaglia theme, and then…at mark 74 in the score, the tuba joins the horns to state that theme emphatically as the violin moves toward the climax where it will pick up that passacaglia theme in double-stopped chords.   I have been known to get unconsciously teary-eyed at this passage just listening to it, perhaps because of the phrasing itself lends itself to breathing along with it, letting it absolutely permeate my consciousness.  And I sat rapt, and didn’t even know the tears had left my eyes until I tasted them on my lips.

Out of that, where does one go?  The passacaglia dissolves into nothingness until only the violin is left.  I’ve never been that big a fan of cadenzas, and this one always seemed a little bit of a letdown after the emotion of the passacaglia.  But Khachatryan changed my mind.  He let the notes die down into smouldering embers of what had gone before, and then, with the first double stops, loud and slashing, it was as if he stirred the fire, igniting it once again until it burst into scorching flame.  He took the second half blisteringly fast, perhaps losing some of the melody in the purpose, but carrying the work into the raucous finale better than I’ve heard anyone else do it.  Shostakovich famously gave the soloist a break at the beginning of the finale after some feedback from Oistrakh that his arms needed a rest, and Khachtryan took a moment to wipe his brow before carrying the work to its conclusion, seemingly faster and faster and faster up through the very end. The violin solo contains a great deal of very high notes and double stopping through this final movement, which if not handled deftly could come up as harsh and screeching.  There was absolutely none of that with Khachatryan, whose pharasing and body language once again sold the virtuosity of the finale.  One thing to note here–as had been true throughout the piece–the balance between orchestra and soloist was perfect, even in the loudest sections where a single, high-pitched instrument might easily get lost.  I’ve seen it happen before, and it did not here, all the way through the final notes of the finale.

A solo bow for Sergey Khachatryan

Khachatryan was greeted by an immediate and thunderous standing ovation, being recalled four times.  This performance was everything I wanted it to be and more, and as it turns out, he has recorded it.  I already own two recordings–but there is room for another, even though it was one made thirteen years ago, when he was just 21 years old.  He’s that good.


And now for the intermission, and the continuation of the tour of Severance Hall….

Just a few words about Jakub Hruša and the performance of the Eroica that followed.   I had barely noticed Hruša during the concerto, but in the symphony, I discovered how much fun he was to watch conducting, particularly his bouncing up and down during vigorous bits and the great humour with which he seemed to approach his conducting duties, actually bringing a smile and a chuckle from my left seatmate at various times during the performance. His baton and left hand work were alternately crisp and expressive, with a large vocabulary of very precise gestures.  And the Cleveland Orchestra responded beautifully, making the performance recall the great recording under George Szell that I grew up playing until the record was nearly unplayable.