Siege Diaries 9/12/2021

Today’s Daily Stoic writing prompt: Where am I putting on airs?

I’d like to say that I don’t put on airs. There’s nothing like being bullied and teased as a kid to zap your self-confidence and keep you humble. Unless, of course, your solace in those times of trouble is to come to believe you’re better than all of those people, particularly intellectually.

Although I’ve largely grown out of that, I still do struggle with that from time to time. I also grew up in an environment where “smart people” all went to university, and if you didn’t there was a bit of a value judgement on you. Years of being exposed to plenty of smart folks with just a high school education (as well as meeting absolute idiots with higher degrees) has generally leached that attitude out of me.

On a side note: Thus we enter the final month of the Daily Stoic writing prompts. T-30 days and counting.

Way back in the Before Times, I used to write longer pieces about the concerts I attended. But as of today, I’ve now been doing this daily blogging thing for eleven months, and before a pause of a few months, I did the same for the first 100 days of the pandemic. I’ve discovered an important thing: I really don’t like writing full-length pieces every day. Once or twice a week is about the right amount of time for me to give my words a chance to be something more than a grocery list of what I did that day.

This is one of the reasons I held up on writing about yesterday’s second concert until now. I’m on vacation, and my Pathfinder game was cancelled, so time this evening freed up. So….

In the early days of March, 2020, just as the pandemic fell like a massive anvil onto an unsuspecting world, I gained an appreciation of sorts for Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony. It’s a bit of an odd duck in so many ways: It takes the form of a song cycle, with two soloists (soprano and bass) performing eleven “movements,” all based on poetry about death–unnatural death–written by the poets Lorca, Rilke, Apollinaire, and Küchelbecker–all translated into Russian (only Küchelbecker wrote in that language) and tweaked a bit by Shostakovich to drive home the meanings he wanted to convey.

What were those meanings? To quote the composer:  “Life is man’s dearest possession. It is given to him only once and he should live so as not to experience acute pain at the thought of the years wasted aimlessly or feel searing shame for his petty and inglorious past, but be able to say, at the moment of death, that he has given all his life and energies to the noblest cause in the world – to fight for the liberation of humanity. I want listeners to this symphony to realize that ‘life’ is truly beautiful. My symphony is an impassioned protest against death, a reminder to the living that they should live honestly, conscientiously, nobly, never committing a base act. This is very important for much time will pass before scientists have succeeded in ensuring immortality. Death is in store for all of us and I for one do not see any good in the end of our lives. Death is terrifying. There is nothing beyond it.”

As you may have surmised, Shostakovich was lacking in religious faith (although he definitely draws upon Russian religious traditions in some of his works). He wrote the symphony while he was in the hospital in 1969 after suffering a second heart attack, and he suffered from a number of other ailments as well, including a right hand and legs that were impacted by a mysterious neurological ailment which, in my thinking, has never been thoroughly explained (polio and ALS are the two most common theories, but what he had really didn’t look like either).  And in early 1969 Moscow was in the midst of a flu epidemic–so he was isolated and could receive no visitors. This symphony is the result of his time in isolation, convinced that he was not long for this world. He wrote the work in just about a month, and was so afraid of missing its premiere that even though he’d written the soprano part with his friend Galina Vishnevskaya in mind, he approved going ahead with another singer when she wasn’t available immediately.

So much of this is what resonated with me in March, 2020. The pandemic was still so new at that time. We were all dealing with sudden isolation and fears about what would happen next. The stories from Italy were horrific. Was that coming here? Our lives were being put on hold. Would they be cancelled like everything else?

In the fall of that year, having survived the first wave, a number of orchestras optimistically announced seasons. Some planned digital offerings for the near future with live concerts tentatively scheduled for the spring. One of these was Kindred Spirits Orchestra, which is a Markham-based part-time professional orchestra. I’d had a ticket to see them perform Shostakovich’s 15th symphony for June 2020; that, of course, never happened. They put the 14th on the schedule for the end of May. I bought a ticket, full of hope (with vaccines becoming a reality) that it might be my first live concert after lockdowns.

I was wrong. But yet, I was correct.

The May performance didn’t happen. But around the time in August when the KSO announced their 2021-2 season, the 14th suddenly appeared back on the calendar on September 11.

I almost didn’t believe it. I quickly purchased a ticket, wondering whether it was real. (The orchestra’s website is a little wonky). Unlike some other tickets I’ve purchased, which arrived into my email box immediately after making an order, there was nothing. I emailed the contact email; and it was explained that they’d have a guest list. (I suspect they don’t have a program–or funding–to generate etickets.) I still had that odd feeling of skepticism right up until yesterday morning, when I got a detailed email of how to get to the concert, where to park, and info about safety measures.

It was, indeed, real.

But the journey was not to be easy. The Cris Derksen concert was delayed by half an hour, which cut into my buffer time (I’d hoped to scout a Dollarama or two on the way looking for a particular item–more on that below). Luckily, traffic was moving nicely, and Google Maps put me at the concert hall at just before 7 for an 8 pm concert. No problemo!

The last stretch was along the 400. Getting off at the exit for Hwy 7, I had a moment of eye dampness. This was actually happening.

And then, I realized: Google had sent me to the wrong place. I wasn’t in Markham. I was in Vaughan.


I scrambled to find a place to stop to get the correct place programmed into my phone. When I finally did, it told me the correct location was about 21 more minutes further east, putting me there at around 7:30.

As I finally pulled into the correct location, I thanked all the passing deities for teaching me risk management skills. The buffer–meant for everything from traffic jams to GPS foulups–saved my bacon. Had I been late, I would have been screwed, as the concert was only about an hour long, with no intermission. There were only 50 tickets sold for the live performance, and once it started they were not letting in latecomers.

The universe clearly wanted me to see this thing. But the universe also needed to remind me who was in charge.


The Fourteenth is scored for a string chamber orchestra with added percussion — what I’d call a collection of “special effects” instruments including castanets, whip, bells, vibraphone, xylophone, a woodblock, three tom-toms, and celesta. That’s almost 1/4 the size of the orchestra used for his largest symphonies. The performance took place in a very large banquet hall (with quite excellent accoustics, as it turned out). This allowed the chairs to be placed, distanced, in an arc around the orchestra. It also meant that it was an incredibly intimate performance. I was seated maybe 30 feet from the bass soloist.

But I get ahead of myself. There were two pieces on the program–both, as it turned out, dedicated to Benjamin Britten. The first was Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. Pärt is an Estonian minimalist composer (he’s still alive) and this particular work is scored for a string orchestra with a single bell (sounding the note A). It’s written in his “tintinnabuli” style–meant to evoke ringing bells–and is a short canon (lasting a bit under 7 minutes.) It was a fascinating listen live (I’ve heard recordings) to see how the simple motif of the canon washed through the entire orchestra, accompanied by the chiming of the bell.

On to the 14th Symphony. The work opens quietly, tentatively, and literally hollowed out (no cellos play) until the bass soloist –in this case, baritone John Holland–enters. The feel is dusty, desolate, and exhausted, and Holland captured this sense well. On next to one of my favourite parts of the whole symphony, the spicy “Malaguena”, which depicts Death going in and out of a tavern, and towards the end, dancing on the tables (with castanets!) It’s a fiery piece, and Soprano Stephanie DeCiantis was mostly here for that, but the orchestra didn’t really have the fury the best recordings I’ve heard have. However, things really picked up in the next two movements: “Loreley” and “The Suicide.” This is where Shostakovich’s ability to illustrate a story through instrumentation really shone through, and DeCiantis was able to provide a haunting image of the bewitching Lorelay, who hurls herself to her death (cue the bells) and floats down the Rhine to the sound of the celesta and the vibraphone, followed immediately by “The Suicide”, which is not about Loreley but could be–it contains a haunting duet between cello and soprano and stark imagery of the abandoned grave of someone who has killed themselves.

De Ciantis also did a great job of the next two pieces, where insanity plays a part. The speaker in “On Watch” is the sister of a soldier who’s fated to die in the trenches, so she’s going to give him one last night of passion–ah, sweet, sweet incest. The companion piece has the soprano actually laughing at Death. That particular part was really well done–in fact, as good as I’ve heard it done, because after a moment of insane cackling, as the pitch drops, DeCiantis took the energy out of her voice, as if to say, “this joke is no longer funny.” DeCiantis made me remember that these pieces were written with Vishnevskaya in mind–there was a little bit of physical resemblance involved, and her voice was rich in the bottom registers and glittering (but not shrill) in the upper ones.

The next pieces shifted the focus to the male soloist. John Holland did a good job, although I thought he was lacking a bit in expressiveness and emotion (and his Russian pronunciation sometimes was a bit off. Neither performer had much experience with the language, and neither had sung the work before). The best part about “In the Sante Jail” was the extended fugue for strings played col legno (that is, with the wood part of the bow), along with a woodblock–it evokes prisoners tapping messages to each other. Another favourite–the absolutely snarky, obscene, insult-ridden “Zaprozhian Cossacks’ Reply to the Sultan of Constantinople” (there’s a famous painting that goes with this that I’ve talked about) was a little tentative, although it ended well. The orchestra also hit the next one, “Delvig, Delvig”, out of the park with its gorgeous lush harmonies and triple cello solo; it was also Holland’s best movement. Finally, DeCiantis returned for “The Poet’s Death”–gorgeous–and she and Holland brought the whole thing to its conclusion, after which the whole thing ends abruptly, with a bit of a shudder. Sort of like Death, who, in the Conclusion, is said to be “with us, even while we’re surrounded by life.”

On that note, in June, 2020, I received a Plague Doctor mask charm for winning some online trivia. I could think of no better symbol for this performance for my relic bracelet than this one. It’s been 20 months since I added one. I should be able to add another on Tuesday. May it continue to grow.

I feel incredibly lucky to have gotten a chance to hear this work in the kind of setting I believe it was meant for. This is a chamber work, and being so intimately close to the orchestra turned the experience from simply hearing a concert to listening to a series of stories. It was just as intimate as the string quartet performances I’ve attended, and being one of just 50 audience members in the room made it particularly special. The 14th is not a symphony that’s performed a lot –it’s a slippery work with no tonal centre, all kinds of strange time signature changes, and as the singers mentioned in an interview after the performance, neither the orchestra nor the singers really help each other much–they’re almost antagonists. The fact that these two singers learned the piece in lockdown but were still able to give an outstanding performance is impressive.

Have I mentioned that I love living where I live? The Kindred Spirts Orchestra seems to love Shostakovich; I have a ticket to hear them perform the 15th in December. I have reasonable hopes that they’ll program at least one of his symphonies every year.

On a lighter note, the quest for the catducks was completed this afternoon…