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CLASSICAL  April 2006

CLASSICAL April 2006

Subject:

Re: True Russian Grit from the Land of Pogroms, the Country of Fear

From:

Jeff Dunn <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sun, 2 Apr 2006 21:00:44 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (121 lines)

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.

   SYMPHONY

   Whipped Cream on the Coffins

   San Francisco Symphony
   Mstislav Rostropovich
   Alexander Barantschik

   (4/1/06)

   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
   1934.

   Contravening graces

   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
   apparent.

   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 ...

Jeff Dunn

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