Siege Diaries 11/18/2021

I am just back from my first concert-focused solo trip since January 2020, and there are Feels–mostly the good kind. It was a return to Montreal for another Shostakovich symphony performance–this time one I’d never heard live, the 15th. It had been two months since I’d been there for the first OSM concert, but it felt like last week, and I’m starting to get my bearings in the city, even if I’ve only really spent a total of five days there over three separate trips in 2019 and now, 2021.

I managed to time things perfectly. I wanted to have a few hours to go to a couple of shops or perhaps a museum when I arrived–and this meant I needed to leave early (at 6 am) to make it past Toronto before the traffic went into full rush hour mode. Once it does that, you might as well wait until 10 am. My plan worked perfectly. I got to Montreal just before noon.

I had Google maps take me to Kama Pigments for routing purposes. I’d hoped to visit this place on my last trip, but it was not in the cards. Now, having used up most of my gold leaf on the four scrolls I completed recently, I had a real reason to go–and I was glad I did. It felt like visiting an apothecary shop, except all of the drugs and chemicals were jars of pigment and associated things needed for making paint of all kinds, such as linseed oil and gum arabic. I didn’t need any pigments at the moment, but I did take advantage of a very nice selection of brushes to pick up three good quality tiny liners, along with the aforementioned gold leaf.

I was initially worried I was going to be disappointed, as the shop wasn’t open when I got there. I noticed there were a lot of fabric and findings places on the street, including a bead shop. Holy wow. That turned out to be quite possibly the largest I’d ever been in. I came away with some very nice garnets and pearls, the findings to make the traditional charm for my Shostakovich symphony souvenir bracelet, and a bag of gold stars. I also twisted my ankle on the way out the door, resulting in a bit of a limp for the rest of the day.

After beads and gold leaf, it was time for bagels at Fairmount. As it was not quite check-in time for the hotel, but I was really craving the pizza I had at the Ferris wheel on the last visit, I went down to the Old Port. Driving around looking for a parking space, I spotted a hat in a store I was interested in. Ended up parking at the science museum again, and went to check out the hat. It was pricy–it has a leather crown and a band of fox fur, all black–but I had my money from the sale of various gold bits, and that’s where it went. I then walked down to the Ferris wheel–and unfortunately the restaurant was closed for the season (even though the Ferris wheel was operational). So no pizza. But I had noticed on the way, having driven past the hotel) that I would be staying adjacent to a small Chinatown strip, so I figured I’d pick something up there.

The hotel–a Candlewood Suites–was perfect. It’s designed for extended stay, so it had a full kitchen–and by a full kitchen, I mean fridge, stove, microwave, dishwasher, toaster, and pots and pans. There were oven mitts, cultlery, serving spoons, and paper towels, too. So after ordering and picking up my lemon chicken (just two blocks over), I was able to eat it on a plate and put the remnants in the fridge. I was also able to toast one of the bagels in the morning. I’ll be coming back for sure to that place in May.

After my dinner, I changed my clothes. The outfit I’d put together in honour of 1971 (the year of composition of the symphony) worked out beautifully. I had the Japanese Air Lines bag from my dad’s trip to Japan, the pearls he’d brought back for my mom, and a vintage kimono–not from that trip, but recalling the robes Dad had brought for my mom and me. Paired with wide black pants and a blouse with a sort of a crossover motif, it made a wonderful ensemble. (The bag actually belonged to my uncle, who had been on that trip with my dad, and was given to me by my cousin. Our bag–which was identical–was used for very many years as our swim bag, and was discarded years ago).

The concert hall was also easy walking distance (the reason I’d selected that hotel in the first place). I had some time to kill, so I stopped into a shop with goods by local artisans that I’d visited on my first go-round back in 2019, and came away with a glass star necklace and some matching earrings. I poked my head into a vintage store as well, but didn’t find anything worth buying. I did find this interesting installation in a park across the street from the concert hall.

I checked into Maison symphonique about 50 minutes before the concert. The person scanning vaccine passports was impressed that his scanner accepted my Ontario QR code. The concert was held at full capacity which was a little…strange. Slightly uncomfortable. However, I’d invested in a KN95 mask, and was very happy with how well it covered my mouth and nose with no gaps–and the best part is that they do not get sucked in by breathing. I’m sold. The cloth masks I have (which I’ve decorated so nicely) fit well over top of them, so instead of the filter inserts I had formerly, I’ll just double mask when I want to look stylish.

I was also happy that the people in the adjoining seats were scrupulous about keeping their masks in place with no coughing or fidgeting. In fact, I could have hugged the guy on my right, who tapped a chatty guy sitting in front of me who was dicknosing and told him to put his mask up. He did, and it remained in place for the rest of the concert.

The first part of the concert was pianist Louis Lortie playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 2. This was a late replacement for the Schumann piano concerto (which is one of my top three or four), but I didn’t mind hearing something new. I’ve always been Team Chopin when given the choice of Liszt or Chopin, feeling that Liszt was more flash than substance, but I have to say this particular work quite enjoyable, sparkling, mid-period Romanticism, and he was definitely a better orchestral composer than Chopin. The work was in a single movement with different sections, with an initial theme constantly being transformed throughout. Cameras were present to show closeups of Lortie (and other musicians) on a large screen above the stage (taking a hint from non-classical shows, one I very much appreciated), and he was a lot of fun to watch–he was hamming it up a bit (although not extensively) and thoroughly engaged in the performance. There was a lovely section with a dialogue with the cello. A lot of it sounded vaguely familiar, as if it were reused in a film somewhere, but Google didn’t seem to think so. .

After a very short pause to reset the stage, the reason why I had driven six hours: Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony, his very last, written in 1971 and premiered in 1972. By that time, the bleeding edge of classical music had moved on past the 65-year-old composer; so had the flood of “official” duties he was expected to perform, given his declining health, leaving him to do his own thing without really giving an eff about anything. It’s always remarkable to me what he was able to achieve in those last five or six years–years when he could barely walk due to neurological disease, with added heart disease (a second heart attack delayed the premiere of this particular work) and lung cancer the icing on the cake. For a man who was clearly dying, he certainly managed to get on with living, to paraphrase The Shawshank Redemption, and while he had a couple of compositional droughts, there isn’t really one weak work in those last years. And far from being the universally dreary statements of a bitter old man, his last works show remarkable variety. The Fifteenth Symphony is in so many ways a review of just about everything he’d ever composed for a symphony orchestra (minus the voices in four of the works, of course), although he saves the exact quotations for other composers, including the (in)famous William Tell bit (but this was at least the third time a little bit of that had snuck into a Shostakovich work.).

Some of those allusions struck me as I listened closely last night. There was a part in the first movement where the first and second violins are out of synch with each other–it’s more obvious in person than in a recording–that evoked for me the murky chaos at the beginning of Symphony no. 2. The brass was much more prominent than I’d previously noticed, and the OSM brass was particularly wonderful. There was a moment when all of the strings bloomed in the lushness of an Orthodox hymn, reminding me of the third movement of the Fifth Symphony. Twelve-tone brass line? Check. DSCH motif? Check. Sarcastic woodwinds? Check. Fun with percussion? Oh, lots of fun with percussion. What isn’t here–there’s timpani, snare, bass drum, tam-tam, celesta, glockenspiel, triangle, wood blocks, and marimba.-? The timpani get an actual solo/call and response part (shades of the First Symphony). The same theme traded around by all kinds of combos of instruments, sounding completely different every time? Check. Pretty much an exact quote of the second movement of Symphony no. 4 at the end? Check. Passacaglia? Check. Aching cello solo? Check. Frisky flutes? Check. (The first flautist was particularly expressive.) In fact, let’s get solos for just about everyone! Celesta notes over a soft sustained tone from the strings? Check. There is a lot going on here, but yet the work is full of white space, huge passages where only one or two instruments in a stage full of musicians are playing.

I’ve talked before about a key moment in the second movement where, in the midst of a thin, sad funeral march, the entire orchestra suddenly summons itself for a massive, shattering outburst, as if Shostakovich is saying, “Look. I can still do this.” And heard live, it was indeed intense. But I hadn’t quite expected the ending to hit me just as hard, if not harder. It interrupts, alarm clock-like, a sweet, swaying tune in the strings, one reminiscent in many ways of the lighter music Shostakovich never stopped writing, and the chord is thin and dissonant. Little snippets of what has come before flit by, and finally the high strings settle into an almost imperceptable fifth chord (thus, the haze) with a few notes from the celesta before the percussion starts up what sounds a little like coming into a room full of clocks as they all strike the top of the hour. It’s all not only in the major, it’s almost gleefully so, and the very last note heard–from the celesta, glockenspiel, and triangle played together, over that fifth, is the C sharp–the perfect resolution of the tension, as if to say, “what if it ended quietly, and in the major? Would that surprise you? ” More than one person has said that this is a gaze into infinity, one that recalls the end of the Fourth Symphony, but that one was in a minor key. This is major. You know, happy ending? So why am I crying? Is it joy? Is it release? Do I need to understand what it is? Maybe it’s everything?

That’s it. This symphony is everything. It really is.

(And the only quibble with the entire performance, which was absolutely spectacular, was that conductor Stefan Asbury did not let the morendo last long enough beyond that final C sharp. But the orchestra played the silence of the ending otherwise perfectly, held there for a good twenty seconds as that last note dissipated into memory.)

I had a little pin of Shostakovich on the lapel of my coat. It fell off when I was leaving, wanting, apparently, to stay where his music was played. I rescued it. No worries, little button. You only have three days to wait. And, the fates be kind, you will hear this same symphony again in almost precisely a month.

And after an uneventful drive home today, I added another memory to the bracelet: Pearls, in token of my memory of 1971, and the snowflake, for the flakes that greeted me on arrival to the city yesterday.