Siege Diaries 3/31/2022

In the before times, before the exhaustion came upon us all, I used to write exquisitely literary accounts of the concerts I attended. In these latter days, it has often become enough to simply report on them. Although the relief at beginning to plan these experience is real, and palpable, so, too is the mental labour in simply anticipating them as a realist in a world that would desperately like to believe the pandemic is over. With the world opening again, yet with news of yet another resurgence, I live week to week, even day to day. I have my stockpile of rapid tests, and I now make decisions based on priorities. Last night’s concert was one of them–and for it I consciously skipped my volunteer shift at CWH because HeritageCon (for modellers) was being held there last Sunday and the mask mandate has been lifted (interestingly enough, I just received a communication that effective tomorrow, the mask requirement at the museum is being reimposed). I had to go in on Tuesday for some fairly routine medical tests–and even though everyone there was masked with face shields, there is still some risk. I am now constantly hearing of friends testing positive–although none of the recent ones have had symptoms beyond a bad cold, so at least there’s a modicum of reassurance for me and my triple-vaxxed status. But the virus is definitely out there everywhere. Are we immune enough to not cause that uptick in hospitalizations that we’re most worried about? I’m looking ahead, too–at the concerts I have planned, at the other events surrounding them–and constantly evaluating and reevaluating risk. What could happen if I tested positive? What would that impact?

It’s exhausting.

I had been anticipating the concert last night for close to two years. It had originally been on the schedule for 2021, and I’d signed up for a ticket when I put in my TSO season subscription in early March, 2020. It wasn’t on the initial list for this year, but in November it popped up. The National Arts Centre Orchestra does an exchange every year with the TSO, and they chose to go ahead and reschedule the concert planned for 2021, for a very good reason–they had commissioned a Philip Glass symphony in honour of long-time ABC anchorman (and Canadian) Peter Jennings, and it still needed its premiere. (They are also taking it to Carnegie Hall). But my reasons for wanting to go was the presence of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 9–one I had not yet heard live (although I had a ticket for a performance in May with the OSM).

A lot of people really love the 9th. I have historically liked it very much, but its carefully constructed exterior of jollity had always obscured its very different heart for me, and so it has always lacked the emotional punch that I’d expect of a symphony falling chronologically between the 8th and 10th symphonies. Of course I knew the story–the work was one of passive-aggressive rebellion against a regime that expected Shostakovich to out-Beethoven Beethoven for his 9th symphony, written in the year of victory in the Great Patriotic War. Massive numbers, including a choir singing the praises of Stalin, was what was expected. Shostakovich knew he couldn’t write another 8th. So he wrote a classically-inspired Allegro (including a repeat of the opening theme)–one that is often described as more or less Mozart or Haydn. He wrote an Allegretto finale that sounds almost circus-like. In the middle, a jittery, antic Presto (not a common tempo marking for him). In between, the second movement is kind of hinky, limping waltz, but with a lush ascending string passage that to me (and to internet meme makers) always brings to mind someone sneaking up on someone, contrasting against solo woodwinds.

And then, there’s the fourth movement. Shostakovich so often makes the penultimate movement the core of the work, the key to understanding. Merely saying “this is a Largo” for a Shostakovich work puts one into mind of what to expect–but inevitably, it’s easy to miss the emotional impact of one of these Largos when heard live. The Largo of the Sixth Symphony made little impression through headphones–but live, it was a whole different story The Largo of the 9th is one of these, because I was able to watch the bassoon soloist. The core of the piece focuses on a dialogue between the low brass, making stentorian pronouncements, and the bassoon, nearly alone on stage (except for a sustained low note by the violas (ah, another commonality with the 6th!) replying with a lament that rivals the English horn solo in the first movement of the 8th symphony. I have never been a fan of those over-literal interpretations of Shostakovich works that say that X instrument must be Stalin, for instance–but it was hard to miss the implication of military-sounding brass making obvious “statements,” followed by the reply of a single man, playing an impassioned lament. The bassoon plays all the way through to the end, even after the strings come in as a kind of comfort, and then–whiplash time! It’s right into the jaunty first theme of the final movement. It is immediately apparent which feeling is genuine and which is forced. This was the benefit of seeing the 9th performed live. And while it will have a hard time moving up farther on my tier list of Shostakovich symphonies, that’s only because what’s ahead of it is so good. But mark this Largo down with the others that have made me cry. I didn’t expect that, but there it was.

The other works? There was a short contemporary piece called Zeiss at Night, very atmospheric. There was the Korngold violin concerto, also composed in 1945, but lush and full of classic Hollywood orchestral song, with a very theatrical soloist, Blake Pouliot. Apparently the other performances will feature Canada’s current “it” violinist, James Ehnes, but he’s already on next week with the TSO for the Beethoven violion concerto. Pouliot, a rising star in his own right, wasn’t afraid to ham it up a bit, although he canned the ham for the encore, a piece based on the Ukrainian national anthem. Both the Korngold and the Shostakovich received enthusiastic partially standing ovations and whoops. There was also a really cool spoken word/slam poetry piece by a poet by the name of Yao, who apparently collaborates with the NACO. But the Philip Glass? Kind of meh. Interesting enough, but not really memorable. It was unmistakably Philip Glass, with lots of arpeggios and anchoring low notes on the beats, but it didn’t really go anywhere, and was emotionally detached, especially in comparison to both the Korngold and the Shostakovich.

As I write, I’m getting ready to drop the College of Heralds Imaginary Letter of Misintent for April 1. It’s been taking up a good chunk of my time over the past could of weeks, but it’s now ready to launch. I’m getting close to completion on my latest embroidery, based on a constructivist poster for Shostakovich’s ballet The Golden Age. Next will be a special project I hope to use to raise some funds for Ukraine. I have a scroll to work on this weekend as well. A few more long-term plans: Chicago, in a little over a year, for the ‘Leningrad’, this time scheduled with Jurowski conducting.

We also now have an elliptical machine, and have signed up for the online service of workout videos. I am hoping to start making exercise part of my day again. We received the refund cheque from the license plate stickers today, which should help cover that purchase (but won’t buy my vote.) Saturday I’m hoping to go down to Niagara to pick up Betty’s and stop by a friend’s place nearby, where three pints of Graeter’s Black Raspberry Chocolate Chunk are waiting for me. Next week, as I mentioned, there is the TSO concert featuring the Beethoven violin concerto. And I believe I have finally seen the last of the proofreading for the CWH book.

Yes, I’m tired. But generally, things are OK, punctuated by moments of amazing.