Five visits. Five Shostakovich symphonies.
There was the 13th, in September 2019–the one that lost its soloist. There was the 5th, in September 2021– the welcome return out of lockdown. There was the 15th, in November 2021, and then the 9th, in May 2022. And then, this one.
When the OSM season was released earlier this summer, I did not really give a thought to attending another performance of the 10th. Far more appealing was the scheduled visit of Maxim Vengerov in January, playing Violin Concerto no. 1.
And then, things changed.
Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony has been with me, in its entirety, for longer than any other Shostakovich work. I discovered it in 1999, that year of great transition out of academia into what came next; that year of becoming what I have been since. I quite liked it. I bought a CD copy. It become comfortable, like a sweater you return to. That second movement and its four minutes of fury? And the third, with its “waltz from hell”? I’d listened to them too many times to be astounded. For that reason, I think, it has lacked some of the emotional impact for me that so many of Shostakovich’s works have–despite the fact that many critics see it as the apex of his symphonic output. It also has a more satisfactory historical narrative (eff you, Stalin!) for Westerners than its rival for title of “best Shostakovich symphony”, the 5th (the “Soviet artist’s response to just criticism.”) No one really argues about what the Tenth means, even as they’ve come to interpret the third movement as perhaps inspired by a fellow composer Shostakovich may have been a little infatuated with (as was his way.) And it’s an extroverted work, particularly the final movement.
I’ve heard it performed live twice–once by the TSO (which was good, but strangely colourless) and once by the Royal Conservatory Orchestra (which had a little more fire behind it of young players pushing their limits, but also demonstrated how absolutely pivotal the horn solos in the third movement when a couple of them were bobbled). Given a choice between the 10th and Violin Concerto no. 1? The latter would win, hands down.
But then, I lost my job. And somehow it was the Tenth Symphony that rang true as a narrative I wanted to follow in my own life–one of finding one’s true self through turmoil and adversity. I also thought back to last year’s performance of the Fifth Symphony by the OSM led by its new director, Rafael Payare. He’d chosen that work for his first official concert with the OSM, and he’d conducted without a score. Clearly that work was special to him, and watching his absolute all-in enthusiasm conducting it was a treat–and clearly one that also paid dividends with the performance of the orchestra itself. I realized that the Tenth with the OSM would likely spring to life in a way it had never done for me live before. There was also the certainty–as per the Original Plan ™, I was clearing my decks of all out-of-town weekday travel before I pushed the job search. If I got a job and did not get vacation time right away, this would ensure I would not have to forgo a concert.
And then, ever since September 29th, that narrative of future wish fulfillment I saw in the Tenth became reality. I got the job. And I started to think about the larger sweep of importance of the work to me–it’s not just the transformative aspects, but also the sense of closing one door behind me and opening a new one with optimism and a sense of empowerment.
When visiting Montreal, I have generally stayed at a Holiday Inn Express in St. Jean-sur-Richlieu, about 25-30 minutes from downtown. I have come to love the drive to and from the Maison Symphonique, across the Champlain Bridge (which is lit up in blues and greens at night) and past the Farine Five Roses sign. The latter, in particular, I realized on this trip, is something I look forward to seeing every time, a familiar friend, not unlike the Floating Lawyer Heads billboard on the I-190 in Buffalo (which has been in the same spot for over 30 years, although these days it’s owned by only one of the lawyers). This time, I decided to find out more about the sign. I’ve purchased Five Roses flour (it, along with Robin Hood, are the major name brands I see in stores), so I knew the company–although, as it turns out, the corporation that currently owns the mill no longer actually makes the flour. More on that in a moment. The sign hasn’t always read “Farine Five Roses.” It originally read “Farine Olgilvie Flour” and then, once Olgilvie merged with another manufacturer, it was altered to read, on three lines, “Farine Five Roses Flour.” It’s only two lines now, because when Quebec’s French language laws came into effect, the English word “Flour” was removed. (Five Roses was OK as a brand name.) The letters are about 15′ high, and rotate through a cycle with the top row lighting, followed by the bottom row, and then both turning off; this repeats, and then finally both lines turn on and off at the same time. When the rights to Five Roses flour were sold off to Smuckers, there was a real dilemma there–ADM, the company that owns the building still does make flour, and here, on top of their building, was a sign advertising their competitors. In 2006, they turned off the sign, only to be met with public outcry. ADM relented and turned the sign back on, but stated that they would not maintain it, and once it became a safety hazard it would be removed. However, the sign gained protected status in 2020, which means the borough of Ville-Marie will have to approve its removal.
Five Roses. Five visits to Montreal. Five Shostakovich symphonies. Seeing that sign, once again, on the way in to the concert cemented its place as a symbol for my own journey.
I was not disappointed in the concert. The orchestra had opened with a piece, Les Preludes, by Liszt. What struck me about this piece was the incredible balance of the orchestra. Nothing seemed out of place–and it’s seldom that an opening piece like this gets a standing ovation, but this one did. The remainder of the first half was devoted to Ravel’s Piano Concerto, with Vikingur Olafsson as the soloist (one of the best names in all of music, I have to think.) I am discovering I really, really like just about everything by Ravel I’ve heard. This one was infused by jazzy elements that evoked a certain feel of Paris. The gorgeous second movement started off with the piano alone, with the orchestra then joining. Subsequently there was an amazing dialogue with the cor anglais, before a short and dramatic final movement. Olafsson’s playing was expressive, yet subtle, and he was rewarded with a standing ovation of his own (and performed an encore of a Bach work adapted for piano.)
But then, the main event. And the moment I saw that Rafael Payare was, as he did with the 5th, conducting Shostakovich’s 10th without a score, I knew this would be special. I have never seen a conductor that reminds me so much of a dancer. There is so much a feel of banked energy that then just explodes out during the climaxes in his conducting style. It’s crisp, precise, but yet fluid. His entire body is constantly in motion, including crouching down at quiet bits. And I mentioned the amazing balance of the orchestra earlier–it was perfection here once again. The first movement was suitably dark, growing to an explosive central episode where the brass and percussion dominated, but ending in the quiet of flutes and piccolos. The second movement–often just a torrent of unrestrained fury–had that fury, but also an incredible dynamic contrast with the quieter stretch. There was also a xylophone part to this movement that I’d never noticed before. I’ve learned that the third movement hinges on the horn solos, which are the same repeating motif (the one said to represent the name Elmira, the first name of Shostakovich’s fellow composer-muse). The solos sound effortless, but given the bobbles I’d heard in both of my other live performances, I know they are not. The OSM’s horn section is 3/4 women, and one of them took the solos. She was perfect. So were those atmospheric tam-tam strikes, and the shattering brilliance of the entire orchestra when out of nowhere the central waltz breaks out, and the winds at the end which point the way into the final movement. And what a final movement! By the end, I was smiling ear-to-ear through tears of utter joy. I never would have expected tears in this particular symphony, but they were tears of victory. Shostakovich had persisted and retained his vision. I’d somehow rediscovered mine. And as I left the city to drive back to my hotel, through traffic generated by the Leafs-Habs game, the Farine Five Roses sign winked at me, as if to acknowledge what was always known.
I had booked a harbour cruise on the Bateau-Mouche for 12:30 pm on Thursday. The original intent of this trip was to be two days long, with a stop at the aviation museum on the way in on Tuesday and the boat trip on Wednesday. But it turns out the aviation museum closes at 2:15 on Tuesdays and there were no boat trips available for Wednesday, so my husband stayed home, I cut the trip to one day, and was able to schedule the boat for Thursday. I’d done my bagel run and a trip to Atwater Marche on the way in on Wednesday, so on Thursday I had time to check out Les Artisans d’Azure, a LARP shop that had been recommended to me a few years ago. I wanted a puffy shirt and so did my husband, and I was not disappointed. I also needed to have a Farine Five Roses shirt, and I found a boutique that had what I wanted (and I bought a poster by the same artist, showing a variety of Montreal’s iconic architecture). I got to the Vieux Port (where the boat was boarding) a bit early, and ended up visiting the same shop where I bought my fur hat last November to purchase a piece of jewellery I’d looked at at that time. Then, it was on to the boat. It was, by then, raining and blowing quite significantly, but the boat was completely enclosed by glass, so that was not an issue. I’d hoped to get closer to my favourite sign, but I managed only a side view. The rain made for some interesting effects on the photos I took from inside–ones I thought were worthwhile in their own way.
Just as the tour was wrapping up, I checked my email. I had a message from the folks at CWH mentioning that at the last moment, I’d gotten a pair of tickets to the 50th anniversary gala on Saturday.
Driving home, I encountered the trailing edge of the rainstorm as the sun was setting. I watched the colour drain from the sky through grey clouds, and then, the storm was behind me.
And so, the postscript: As my husband did not have the right clothes to wear to the gala on short notice, I took a friend instead. I brought out the dress I’d worn to the opera–which turned out to be perfect for a black-tie event. I had a wonderful dinner, and even won one of the door prizes. We learned that three of the aircraft that have been on loan from the Canadian Aviation and Space museum in Ottawa–the CF-101 Canuck, the F-86 Sabre, and the Spitfire–had been donated to CWH, and there is a desire to restore the Spit to flying condition. And the Glenn Miller Orchestra? Fabulous. The tight harmonies of the reeds, the exuberance of the trombones, the creative use of hats and various mutes by all the brass, and particularly hearing the piece I fell in love with when I was about five years old and heard my parents’ Glenn Miller albums– American Patrol — all made for a very special night. The warplane gods were certainly smiling on me last week.
And so I finish this on the day before the ultimate trip of this momentous three week whirlwind. I will be driving to New York City to hear Igor Levit play all of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues. I’ve been on tenterhooks of sorts these past twenty-some days, but as each event unfolded–and new, unexpected strokes of luck inserted themselves into that crammed-full itinerary–I’ve been riding a kind of high I don’t think has been rivaled in my life for many, many years. Nothing in life is certain, but sometimes, the uncertainties make the realities just that more precious.