My season ticket with the NSO concluded last night with a rousing finish:
Mozart 32, the Britten Violin Concerto, and a fabulous Shostakovich 11.
Mozart 32 is one of the shortest symphonies out there, lasting only eight
minutes or so. Not only is it short, but the forces required to play
it made the Kennedy Center stage seem almost deserted. Still, it's
Mozart, and when filler is of this quality, life is good. This was the
second time I've heard this in live performance; it makes a good alternative
to, say, a Beethoven overture.
Next on the program was a rarity, the Britten Violin Concerto. Britten
composed this in the late 1930's, and is said to have had the Spanish
Civil War in mind. He did not give the piece an explicit programmatic
context -- wisely, according to the program notes, as he was able to
avoid the type of argument that surrounds the final piece on the program,
as well as other Shostakovich works. Frank Peter Zimmermann was the
soloist. I came to the concert expecting to like this piece a lot more
than I did. I just didn't take to it, for some reason. Still, Zimmermann
and the NSO played the piece as if they believed in it, and I think I'm
going to give it another shot. I will probably get the recent CD by
Daniel Hope, who pairs the Britten VC with the newly revised Berg VC.
Shostakovich 11, "The Year 1905," is of course programmatic. But
which program? Was Shostakovich really writing about 1905, or did he
have a contemporary event in mind when he was composing it in 1956: the
Hungarian revolution. You can make the case for the former, as there
are references to Bloody Sunday in it: snare drum mimicking gunfire, a
Russian song, that type of thing. But you can also make the case that
DDSh was protesting against the suppression of the Hungarian revolt: the
gunfire fits both events, and the piece is contemporary in flavor, not
so redolent of music of the turn of the 20th century. This is one of
the many aspects of Shostakovich that I find so interesting. Regardless
of historical context, the NSO and Leonard Slatkin were both at the top
of their game for this. The soft passages, especially at the start,
were poignant and crystal-clear. The loud portions, which must be marked
fffff, were simply overpowering, with the percussion section pulling out
all the stops. The bells sequence at the end was very theatrical. In
order to strike the 30-foot-high chimes, the percussionist had to enter
the chorister section in back of the orchestra and strike them from
there. And this was truly a case where the extra ammunition was necessary.
For the bells to be heard over the fortissimo orchestra, you need an
instrument of this size. And they were mega-audible even above that.
I've rarely heard the audience so enthusiastic after a performance, and
in my opinion the NSO deserved every bit of it.
So that wraps up this year's season ticket. There were a number of
unexpected delights: Diamond's Romeo and Juliet Suite, Elgar 2, the
Corigliano PC, and Glass 7; as well as performances that I knew would
be sensational: Mahler 9 and the Wunderhorn songs, and Rostropovich's
all-Tchaikovsky night. I have already subscribed for next season but I
have to say I was on the fence until the last day of the deadline. There
were only a couple of no-question, must-see concerts, and they were not
on the same plan. So I will definitely be doing some switching when
that window opens in August.