Siege Diaries 9/16/2021

Today’s Daily Stoic writing prompt: Will I triumph over the disasters and panics of the day?

So far, so good. Getting back to work after a vacation is always fun, and I returned to find that there was a kerfuffle about the prioritization of one of our work items; it kept me working over the lunch hour but it seems to be on the way to resolution. Not really a panic or a disaster–there was never a sense that it couldn’t be handled.

I got the bagels from Montreal to their recipient, who was having some flooding issues with her kitchen. There was food shopping. I have two meetings tonight. I also need to do some administrative work to plan for next week’s Speechcraft, and a little bit of planning for the archery tournament this weekend.


I may have broken my pandemic symphonic fast with last Saturday’s performance of Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony, but it was Tuesday’s performance of his Fifth that took on a quasi-religious significance, for so many reasons. The Fifth–in the form of its fourth movement00 was the first Shostakovich work I encountered, back in high school, and liked. It was also the first of his works I heard in its entirety, in April 2018. It involves the number 5. And this would be my fifth hearing of the work.

There was once a version of me that would have thought that hearing the Fifth again would be somehow less-than than hearing a Shostakovich symphony I’d never heard before, or even hearing the Fourth, Seventh, or Eighth for a second time. (Those, after all, were supposed to have all happened in the spring and summer of 2020.). But September 2021 me wanted, more than anything, another performance of the iconic Fifth–wanted, in particular, to hear that third movement, knowing what that meant when the work premiered in November, 1937, to an audience exhausted and weary of the fears of the past few years, and seeking permission to feel again.

This trip also invoked the feeling of pilgrimage that I have had each time I traveled a long distance to hear one of Shostakovich’s symphonies. Many of these trips have been entwined in some way with my own history, and this one–as I wrote about yesterday–was particularly poignant. And I had a previous trip to Montreal for Shostakovich–what was to be the strange, headless performance of his Thirteenth Symphony two years ago-echoing in my memory as well. There was a desire, in a way, to correct for that. The OSM is, by a good amount, the most acclaimed orchestra I have heard perform, and I wanted to see them shine.

I was not disappointed.

It was tremendously rewarding, once again, to dress up for a concert. I wore the 1930s suit, shirt, tie, and shoes (the latter made by me) and my vintage Soviet watch, all in homage to the date of composition. I brought along Herissony Cat. I wore my relic bracelet. All the things.

This was the OSM’s first performance under its brand-new conductor, Venezuelan-born Rafael Payare. Payere was born in 1980, but looks like–and exudes the energy of–a 25-year-old. And it was apparent with the very first work played–what is apparently an OSM “mainstay”, Ravel’s La Valse, that this man injects an intensity into everything he does, one he and the OSM hopes will continue to open the orchestra up to younger audiences. “Restrained elegance” are not two words that apply to Payere. Watching him was like watching a dancer–he was hypnotizing.

But what would he do with Shostakovich?

In the program, it was specifically mentioned that Shostakovich’s works “mean a great deal to (him) personally.” This work, on this particular occasion–this was significant to him.

And then, they took away the podium

He would be conducting without a score.


Tears of joy, that first movement, which was nothing short of perfection–tight, controlled, yet explosive, riding roller coasters of dynamics. The second movement was everything it should be.

And the third movement? What would the dancer with the baton find in the sinuous sweep of the Largo?

This. This is what I had come for, had pined for, would shed tears freely for. There are eight string lines in the third movement, and the work started out with just the violins on the periphery of the orchestra, half the violas, and half the cellos, playing their hymn-like theme, and then it grew and bloomed and flourished, those lush, otherworldly harmonies, so unbearably beautiful, then falling back to almost nothing as the woodwinds traded solos and duets–all played to utter perfection. It had been obvious in all that had gone before that Payere was at home with the boisterous angst of the first movement, and the biting wit of the second, but his ability to evoke passion and emotion, freely flowing but never overdone, seemingly effortless but yet keeping the listener on the edge of the seat made it clear that this world, too, was close to his heart. By the time we reached the end — the almost imperceptable tremelo in the violins, the harp ascending to play alongside the celesta, evoking the hazy world at the end of the 4th symphony, and then the soft absolution, morendo, the tears had been shed, and I was in another world.

The start of the fourth movement, almost an attaccca (although there was a pause, the orchestra did not put down their instruments) was incredibly effective. Payere chose a fairly fast, crisp, tempo to start off with, almost a whiplash after the emotion of what had gone before, and was not afraid to play with the tempo throughout the work. The performance was only marred by taking the faster version of the ending–not quite at Bernstein level, but in my mind, not allowing the tension to ratchet fully up to allow the final anvils of those bass drum strikes to really land the way I think they should. However, I have to say it was very well done, full of energy and fire and fury, and those final notes slowed down just enough to bring on a bit of the apocalypse.

Payere got a standing ovation of close to five minutes. He earned every minute of it.

Gods, I want to hear him conduct Shostakovich’s Tenth. I suspect he has a sub-4 minute second movement in him.

A few side notes:

The OSM brass are spectacular. The Fifth isn’t quite a showoff brass piece like the Seventh is, but they were shown off to really good effect in this performance (in the three movements they were in, of course, because they’re not part of the third.)

I think I said it the last time: the Maison Symphonique is just a wonderful concert hall, both acoustically and design-wise.

The octobass made a return! It was used for part of the fourth movement of the Shostakovich. What’s more, another octobass was sitting up in the organ loft. I seem to recall the orchestra had been planning a performance with three of them that was cancelled because of the pandemic.

There was a guy two rows ahead of me with serious Shostakovich energy. He had the hair. He had the build. He had the glasses. He was, however, a little more touchy-cuddly with his female companion than I suspect Shostakovich ever was.

In terms of pandemic measures, my printed-out Ontario vaccine certificate plus my ID worked perfectly (same went for the restaurant we ate in.) No problems at all. And the hall looked like it was maybe 60 to 65% capacity, with empty seats between each group. You were allowed to take off your mask once the performance started and people stopped moving around, but I’d say 60% of people (including me) kept them on. Montreal, incidentally, felt remarkably normal. Everyone just seemed to be used to masks and the other measures. And, as I’d seen from my Ferris wheel seat on Monday, the city is beautiful at night.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be complete without another relic for the bracelet. This time, I picked up a small medallion from the Oratory, and added on a golden aurora borealis crystal star. The fifth Fifth was, indeed, both golden and a pilgrimage completed.

Again, in two months, for the Fifteenth? I have my ticket. Fingers crossed.