Author Topic: Sibelius and Shostakovich in College Park  (Read 1998 times)

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Mark G. Simon

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Sibelius and Shostakovich in College Park
« on: October 30, 2007, 08:32:05 AM »
ymphonies which are special favorites of mine: Sibelius-Symphony no. 7 and Shostakovich-Symphony no. 13. Not only that, I got to hear it for free. I was standing in line to shell out $25 for a ticket when a lady approached and asked if anyone was interested in a single ticket. I said yes, and she was not interested in payment, she just had an extra ticket because her husband decided not to come. The seat was second row center, right up close to the stage. As a result the balance from where I was sitting was strongly biased in favor of the strings, especially in the Sibelius. The Shostakovich is much more heavily scored for winds and percussion, and more sparingly scored for strings, so I heard a better balance there.

First of all, it has to be said that these kids can really play! This isn’t the kind of student orchestra where you squirm at questionable intonation and try to imagine how the music really should go. No, this orchestra is secure in all their notes, and sure in intonation, even in places, such as the climax of the Sibelius, where the strings are emoting way up in the stratosphere. The only ways in which the immaturity of the players might be evident were in certain interpretational niceties in the Sibelius, but these problems could also possibly be attributed to the conductor. For instance, in the string chorale early on in the piece, the phrasing seemed to proceed from measure to measure rather than the long-arched line that would be most desirable. Perhaps bowings were chosen more for ease than effectiveness. The trombone solo seemed a little timid when it came, but that could also be because I had the string section in my face. But overall, the work flowed seamlessly from beginning to end, like an organism gradually unfolding, revealing all of its functional layers. Until the end, there seemed to be one basic pulse which was modified slightly faster or slower as the music required, but not broken until the lead-up to the climax, when the music speeds up considerably. When the climax arrived it was like a tidal wave, irresistible, overpowering.

After this brief first half, there was intermission, and then a second “half” that was at least 1 ½ hours in duration. The Shostakovich is a full hour long, but the performance was preceded by an appearance by Yevgeny Yevtushenko himself, now 74 years old. He gave a long speech about how he came to write the poem Babi Yar, the troubles he had getting it published, how the editor of the Literaturnaya Gazeta (not sure of the name) looked at the poem and said “this is a good poem, this is an important poem, we must publish it. I may lose my job for publishing this. Let me call my wife.” and how time passed and he came back and said the whole staff would be glad to lose their jobs for this, but in any case it was late and the censors had all gone to bed, so they published it. He talked about how one day his wife took a phone call, then slammed the receiver down, saying “Some idiot, trying to make me believe he’s Shostakovich”. Then the phone rang again, and indeed it was Shostakovich, asking for permission to set the poem, and then with permission granted, asking if he could meet him, because the music was already completed. He told how Shostakovich was such an idol to many Russians because a broadcast of the 7th symphony during the darker days of the war had given hope to so many Russians, and so it was difficult to believe that he was actually speaking to the great composer. He concluded with a vivid reading of the poem Babi Yar, in Russian.

Only then was the music allowed to commence. David Brundage did a magnificent job with the bass solo. He has that deep Slavic-sounding bass voice the work needs and his sense of pitch is pinpoint exact. He is not one of those wobblers that you have to guess at which note thery’re singing out of a range of 3 semitones. I can’t tell you how well he pronounces the Russian text, only that he sings like he really understands what the words are saying. The male chorus enlivened their performance with occasional dramatic gestures. For instance, when the text says about humor “Just when the buffoon’s pipes would start their tale He would brightly cry ‘I’m here’”, they waved to the audience. At the end of “in the Store” where the chorus sings about the women’s “weary saintly hands” they crossed themselves.

The orchestra sounded great. They could build up to the most shattering climaxes – the ones in “Babi Yar” and “In the Store” were truly hair-raising – and then suddenly disappear in a whisper upon the entrance of the voice. I love the way that climax is reached in “In the Store”. For a moment you really feel the tremendous weight the Russian women must bear in just trying to live their lives. “Fears” was full of sinister rumbling, and ruminations from the tuba and other low instruments, which never make their full impact on recordings. The solo violin passages in “Humor” and “A Career” were excellent. I could go on….

This was a musical experience to remember. Incidentally, the Thirteenth has just solidified its place at the very top of my Shostakovich pyramid, one of the truly great compositions written in my lifetime.


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Re: Sibelius and Shostakovich in College Park
« Reply #1 on: October 30, 2007, 08:42:00 AM »
[Missing a little text at the start.]

This was a musical experience to remember. Incidentally, the Thirteenth has just solidified its place at the very top of my Shostakovich pyramid, one of the truly great compositions written in my lifetime.