Dance Me To the End

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

–Leonard Cohen

Detroit continues to surprise and delight me–in multiple ways. Driving down Woodward–Detroit’s main thoroughfare–on the way in to Orchestra Hall this past weekend I was amazed–and then smiling ear-to-ear–at how packed the streets were on a Saturday night after dark. Only a few years ago, no one would have ventured out after dark, even in the arts district in Midtown. But there was apparently something called Noel at Night in full swing. There were Christmas lights everywhere, the art museum was bedecked with huge wreaths, food trucks were parked at several spots, and the sidewalks were packed. This is not your father’s Detroit.

I drove there Saturday after a short but action-packed stop in at Wassail. There, I’d seen a very deserving person placed on vigil for both the Laurel and the Pelican–and seen him nearly keel over when he realized the vigil tent he’d been helping set up was from him. I did a fitting for the loros for my friend’s Pelicaning, and delivered her a promised cherry pie. I gave out a couple of presents and bought a couple of things. I had a cat-shaped cupcake, and purchased a stuffed snake. And I taught a class. But I headed out around 2:15 to drive to Detroit for a DSO concert, with stops off at a grocery store, Kohl’s, and an Olive Garden.

This was to be the last of my trips to the US for concerts for awhile–maybe a long while, depending on future programming–certainly the last of this burst of successful unicorn hunting. The unicorn in question was Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto no. 2. It’s the last concerto he wrote, and usually suffers in comparison with the absolute stunner of a work that the Violin Concerto no. 1 is. They were products of different periods in his life–No. 1 is from the period often seen as the height of his composing career–the 40s and early 50s–where the wartime door of creative expression in the Soviet Union was slammed shut in 1948–right during, the story goes, the composition of the first violin concerto. It lay “in the desk drawer” for a number of years (although “lay” is not the right term–it was played privately and revised) before its premiere after Stalin’s death.

Violin Concerto no. 2 is from a very, very different period in Shostakovich’s life. Having finally been pressured into joining the Communist Party in the early 60s, Shostakovich was now seen as an “establishment” figure–and in many cases, left to his own devices, rather than pressured into reflecting a Soviet ideal. The years of the Thaw under Khrushchev were over, though, and the country was moving into the Brezhnev years, marked by stagnation and a dull kind of repression (even as outwardly, the USSR was in the midst of the excitement of the space race.) Shostakovich’s later works are often tagged–fairly or not–as bleak and death-obsessed. Spoiler: While these works are sparse and full of murky tonality, most of this “obsession with death” (outside of a few specific works) is, I believe, a bit of a projection of knowledge of the precarious state of Shostakovich’s health onto the pieces he wrote during this period. Interestingly enough, it reminds me a lot of what happens with late Schumann, as people seek to find signs of his eventual insanity in his compositions.

The concerto was, like the First, written for David Oistrakh, in the key of C# minor.–a key I do not believe any other string concerto has been written in. People who are not string players may not realize how incredibly awkward this key is for violinists: The four open strings on a violin are G, D, A, and E. In the relative major key of E major, both the D and the G are sharp. In C sharp minor, you can also sometimes have an A sharp (as well as a B sharp). This can impact your entire hand positioning, and it also means that the easy harmonics of the open strings are not available. Yet, at the same time, one of Beethoven’s late quartets, op. 131, is written in this key. There is also an incredible amount of double-stopping work in the concerto. Oistrakh apparently originally thought all of these difficulties were insurmountable–until he realized that “Shostakovich know exactly what he was after, and had a precise understanding of the violin’s capabilities.” Implicit here, in my opinion: Shostakovich means to push the violinist into physical and mental discomfort in the music. I’m told by a friend who has worked on the famous Passacaglia in Shostakovich’s first violin concerto that the piece–achingly beautiful and anguished–also makes the the violinist attempting to learn it hurt to play it. It’s not precisely sadism–but more an acknowledgement that how comfortable the performer feels with a piece–both physically and mentally–comes out in the way it’s performed. And this one is designed to not be comfortable. As a result Violin Concerto no. 2 is not an obvious crowd-pleaser, but to initiates, it is worth seeking out.

My first visit to hear the DSO had been in early 2019 to hear Shostakovich’s 8th symphony. In that concert, too, the work was paired with Schumann: The piano concerto in 2019; Symphony no. 3 and the overture to Genovefa in this one. Thinking about this today, I realized the odd congruence of all of this. I had once, in my teens, been similarly immersed in the music of Schumann as I am today in that of Shostakovich, although this latter passion has persisted for much longer and gone much deeper (my Schumann explorations never went much beyond his symphonies and concertos–the only works I could borrow from the library in a pre-Internet era.) I’ve written before of the personal meanings I attach to the 8th Symphony. There is also a personal significance to me in the Violin Concerto no. 2: It and I are very nearly the same age, and it was the first of Shostakovich’s works to come into being in a world I also existed in. And that these concerts should be in Detroit, a city I have felt a special bond with since–well, I could say since about the year 2000, but there was something about even my first visit in 1985 that had struck me. I think it was that car trip through what I now know was the liminal space of Brush Park at the peak of its decline, and then downtown past boarded up shops and empty skyscrapers–all places I would come to know, and love, and mourn–and then, improbably, to rejoice in during the city’s resurgence from the metaphorical ashes. (Look up Detroit’s motto for that imagery). There is something there in both Schumann and Shostakovich that nods its head in understanding.

But I was also reminded that in resurgence, the decline in Detroit still persists. Rites of passage can lead to rebirth, but can also mark the transition out of this world. Later in 2019, I had taken the opportunity to tour the abandoned Packard plant. At the time, there was an enormous sense of hope that this famous ruin would soon rise from the ashes in the same way that so many buildings down town were coming back to life. Then 2020 came. And by this year, the ambitious buyer with his dreams had defaulted, and the city moved in to raze the plant. No phoenix would rise here. Sometimes the end really is the end. And so, I learn to take the opportunities when they come. Who knows when I might pass this way again?

And the concert, the Grail I had followed. The Schumann symphony first (although it was played last): This was no. 3, sometimes called the “Rhenish,” the last that he composed (although not the last published). Schumann, although he did not know it at the time, was heading into liminal space. “Critics have disputed the quality of his work at this time; a widely held view has been that his music showed signs of mental breakdown and creative decay,” as Wikipedia puts it. He was four years away from a suicide attempt and six from his death in an asylum. But this symphony is considered his finest–the one where he finally silences critics who attacked his orchestration skills. Listening to the DSO play it–the first time I’d listened to the entire thing since my teens–I was surprised at how tight it seems now. Each of the five movements sets out to do a thing and wastes no extra notes in sprawling out to an unwieldy size. The centrepiece is the fourth, the slow movement, meant to evoke Cologne Cathedral during the enthronement of a bishop. Through the use of brass, one can imagine the procession of the princes of the Church in their silks, the light slanting in through stained glass windows under Gothic arches. The Third had not been my favourite Schumann symphony when I was younger, but now, older, I see its qualities.

The unicorn, however, had been tamed earlier. Violinist Baiba Skride, of Latvian extraction, looked a little different than the average virtuoso violinist–solid, with that feel of the Eastern European peasant, without the faint air of haughtiness that seems to come with playing a Stradivarius (which she does). She’s due to record this concerto with Andris Nelsons and the BSO at the end of January–perhaps that’s why she brought a score onstage. The only quibbles I had with her performance is in breaking the flow at several points to turn the page. In some other concertos, that wouldn’t have mattered much, but Shostakovich does not let the violinist rest more than a few bars at any point during the work. And my gods, what a workout. There were echoes (and at least one direct quotation) of the composer’s second cello concerto, particularly in the doublestop work. During the portions with the orchestra, Skride managed to keep in constant dialogue with the orchestra without making a show of it, but yet somehow still being the clear centre of attention. Usually in Shostakovich, I’m following the instruments around the orchestra, enjoying the interplay. In this one, even when other instruments had solos (most notably the horns, at one point), I was riveted by the violin solo. The challenge here is to put together bits and fragments of lyricism mixed in with utterly dissonant, harsh passages to tell a coherent story; otherwise, it becomes nothing more than noise with orchestral accompaniment. Skride definitely found this throughline. But it was in the cadenzas, where she played alone, where she really shone. This is where the jaw drops at what precisely the composer asks of the performer. The double-stopped passages are positively pianistic, as if the violinist has two hands in which to convey melody and countermelody. Shostakovich isn’t doing anything particularly new here–Beethoven uses the effect as well–but he takes it to the next level. (Did I mention left hand pizzicato thrown in there?) It was impressive, to say the least. I am never going to be brought to tears by violin concerto no. 2, but I was, indeed, left breathless.

A word here about guest conductor Enrique Mazzola, a smallish Italian man with red glasses frames and red shoelaces, both of which I appreciated: He’s a well-known opera conductor (being music director at Chicago Light Opera)–but he did a fine job with these works. Apparently he has an affinity for contemporary works, which would help explain how he managed through a work that is about as far removed from light opera as one can imagine.

After this, it was 10 pm, so there was nothing left but to head for home after a very long day. It was too dark to get more than creepy flashes of the wind turbines that had so struck me on my last trip, but the night was clear, the border easy, and I was home and in bed by 1:15 am, my dance complete. I have now heard all of Shostakovich’s concertos performed live.

Oddly enough, I came home from this trip nearly empty-handed when it came to personal purchases. I went into Kohl’s and bought–nothing. For some reason, the dominant palette I saw involved washed-out shades of orange, blue, and yellow. There were very few of the festive colours I love to wear, and not a single thing called out to me. Target was similar. The best selection, oddly enough, had been in Meijer’s, where I saw a T-Rex ugly sweater that I should have purchased, but I’d been focused on food and assuming that there would be plenty of goodies at Kohl’s. I did buy one item for a surprise household Christmas present. Oh well, I thought, there’s always the little store at Orchestra Hall. Nope. Closed. The guy taking the tickets said they didn’t have the volunteers to staff it, and had gone online. Oh well. Given that I’d ordered, the day before, a Frank Lloyd Wright watch for over $400, I guess the universe was balancing things out.

Sunday I slept in, played D&D, then went down to the Eaton Centre to pick up the first of two new pairs of glasses (as well as some Union Chicken). I prepared the centre mixture for buckeyes in the evening, and this evening I dipped them. Pineapple cookies will follow later this week. At work, I’m starting my seventh week, and will be in the office twice. There will be friends to see for dinner on Friday and the La Bottine concert on Saturday. I’ll be taking part in another education presentation next week, on the same day I attend The Nutcracker in the evening. Looking farther ahead, I have plenty of concerts to attend in the new year–but for now, my road trips are over.