I learned and can still recite parts of "Babi Yar" in Russian. A
magnificent poem well set by Shostakovich.
My review below touches on your concern for the ignorance of your neighbor.
But the clouds of obscurity, burdened by renewed injustices and holocausts,
will win out in the end. But after we're gone.
Whipped Cream on the Coffins
San Francisco Symphony
Some of the lightest and darkest music ever written by Dmitri
Shostakovich was in store for patrons of the second San Francisco
Symphony program honoring the centennial of his birth. Visiting
conductor Mstislav Rostropovich doled out to them a trifold
measure of the man, from frothy dance trivialities supplied by
a paid professional (Suite No. 1 for Jazz Orchestra, 1934); to
morose and bitter musings dedicated to a soloist friend (Violin
Concerto No. 2, 1967); to a ponderous outcry for justice against
bodily and psychic murderers (Symphony No. 13, 1962). The
result was far from pleasant (the thin layer of whipped cream
on the coffins did no good), but nevertheless enobling, especially
considering the immensely committed performances of all involved.
The "Jazz Orchestra" consisted of 16 instruments placed on the
left side of the stage. All were common to popular American bands
of the late twenties, including a banjo, three saxophones, one
violin, one bass, brass and percussion. One exception was the
inclusion of a then-newfangled Hawaiian guitar. What they played
was a waltz, genteel polka, and slow fox-trot cum tango, all of
music-hall-quality. The debut of Don Ho into the last movement
drew snickers from the crowd, but was probably a sensation in
The Second Violin Concerto is an elusive, obsessive and
profound work. It is elusive because of its thematic and dynamic
understatement, and lack of contrast between the first two
movements. It is obsessive because of its prevalent undercurrent
of low bass lines, its constant reference to a da-da da rhythmic
figure, and focus on two-part counterpoint as the main strategy
for musical argument. But is it profound, and it is to the credit
of Rostropovich and especially, soloist and Concertmaster Alexander
Barantschik, that the depth and beauty of the conception was
revealed. The profundity evolves from the challenge posed by the
obsessive constraints and the success by which the saving graces
of orchestration, pacing and tone production contravene them.
Throughout, Rostropovich carefully passed the secondary melodic
line from instrument to instrument; meanwhile, through richness
and varying intensity of tone, Barantschik kept the focus on the
seemingly meandering melodic lines until their structure became
The highlight of concert, as it turned out, came near the
conclusion of the second movement, where wisps of glissando
accompaniment in the violas, thanks to Rostropovich's nuanced
direction, sank like mold spores on a grave. After two movements
of troubled resignation, the bitter sarcasm and nihilism of the
finale was a splash of cold water, but consistent with the theme
of an ungentle good night. To a standing ovation from the
appreciative home crowd, the kisses and bear hug provided
Barantschik by Rostropovich were supremely well deserved.
Like the endless rainy days that have plagued the Bay Area lately,
the second half of the concert provided little change in the
gloomy musical weather. Depth and sincerity of utterance remained
throughout a sad tour of the concerns weighing down Russian
society in the early 1960s, poignantly depicted in five poems
by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The work had great political and moral
significance in its time, and will continue to do so for a while.
The fact remains, however, that the music alone will determine
its ultimate fate in the repertoire.
The symphony has some barriers to success. The texts are wordy
and there are five movements of them. Concerns for word painting
counteract those of structural and motivic cohesiveness prevalent
in "pure," abstract symphonic form. Thus it becomes all too easy
to perceive it as rambling. If taken in too deliberate a manner,
the contrast between movements may be sacrificed, turning the
symphony into a slog.
Not very funny
Rostropovich, consistent with the way he has conducted other
Shostakovich symphonies, was very deliberate. While thus reducing
the contrast between movements, he at least compensated for this
by emphasizing contrasts within movements. Hence the tremendous
climaxes in the work came off very powerfully, especially in the
first movement ("Babi Yar") where Russian thugs are beating a
Jew and later where Nazis are pounding on Anne Frank's door. But
the "Humor" movement so stolidly approached offered little of
its title. Little but the text seemed to contrast the following
two movements "In the Store" and "Fears." Only in the finale did
Rostropovich's careful approach pay dividends in the clarity of
the pizzicato and fugal sections.
The men of the San Francisco Symphony chorus did a fine job of
singing and pronouncing the Russian words. The bass soloist,
Mikhail Petrenko, was highly expressive and on pitch, but his
voice was not meaty enough to match Rostropovich's heavy
interpretation of the symphony.
For what it's worth, a more satisfactory program overall would
have substituted Shostakovich's 1964 cantata The Execution of
Stenka Razin for the symphony. This underrated work has better
melodies, more energy, and would make a better partner for the
Second Violin Concerto because the two works, while highly
contrasting, have several musical motives in common. The program
could start with a suite from The Nose, and thus put a handkerchief
on the coffins instead of the froth.
Something to consider for the 150th anniversary ...