Symphony Study No. 45 | Shostakovich No. 1

by Glenn on April 24, 2016

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975)
Symphony No. 1 in F Major, Opus 10
first performance: 12 May 1926, Leningrad Philharmonic

Allegro molto

I grew up on the American side of the Cold War. Living on the West Coast in the United States, my life was unaffected materially by a distant iron curtain. Today I know Americans (and others who are in the process of becoming Americans) for whom totalitarianism was a grave experience. Many escaped with the clothes on their backs—from Cuba, Romania, the Ukraine.

For me, though, the effect of the Cold War was primarily emotional, a mostly low-grade anxiety that came from the spectre of nuclear war and fueled by things like this:

I reference this because I see one other effect as my symphony studies now take me to Dmitri Shostakovich.

Beyond A Festive Overture, Symphony No. 5, and anything I heard and forgot in music history classes, I have not just ignored, but held at arms length Shostakovich’s music in a way that I think is best termed bigotry or arrogance of the variety of feeling culturally superior to the other side of the Iron Curtain, which, when you consider the number of episodes of The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island I watched (and rewatched) over the years, it’s absurd to imagine cultural superiority over anyone.

But while Tchaikovsky was Russian (and I certainly listened to and enjoyed his music), Shostakovich was a citizen of the Soviet Union, which meant that he was “Red” and, therefore, part of the Evil Empire. I would have been nourished by exposure to Mr. Shostakovich’s music, if there had been a guide.

Last night we heard Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1 performed by the Oregon Symphony conducted by resident conductor Paul Ghun Kim. Michael Steinberg indicates this was Shostakovich’s “graduation exercise for Maximilian Steinberg’s composition course at Leningrad Conservatory …” This is a symphony composed by an 18–19-year old. It’s a traditional romantic era-sized orchestra that Shostakovich wrote for, with the addition of a valve trombone, some extra percussion, and a piano.

I had never listened to this symphony before, but it is thoroughly listenable, even if I’m not dying to hear it again any time soon. Something that this journey through the world of the symphony has taught me is to be open to music that is new to me, which is not the same as being open to new music, which I struggle with. Another time for that subject. As far as this symphony, if I wasn’t exactly moved by the music, I was neither bored nor annoyed by it. Steinberg captures the significance well:

“In the First Symphony . . . the assurance with which Shostakovich both imagines and realizes a large-scale structure is as impressive as his vigor and freshness of gesture.”

Shostakovich takes a traditional approach to the symphony by writing four movements. He puts the scherzo second and saves the slow movement for the third. His writing for strings is fascinating with many solos and divided parts. The use of the piano in the second movement (my favorite movement) was striking. And Shostakovich keeps you guessing with a couple of false endings. The quick clappers in the room were surprised a couple of times that the music continued.

The Shostakovich was the best played piece of the night.

The program opened with Carl Nielsen’s Helios Overture, which was also new to me and a delightful surprise. I’d like to hear it again. It had a rough start with some insecurity in the horn section, members of which were asked to play solos consisting of very quietly played wide ascending intervals. Not an easy opening and I’m not sure but that the conducting made it harder. A conductor hunched over certainly indicates “play quietly” with his posture and demeanor. But it’s a gesture you also have to ignore because playing high and quiet for a horn player requires a lot more air, which you would never get by playing hunched over. So all at the same time you are trying to respond to and ignore the conducting.

After the intermission, the program concluded with a stirring performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major performed with the Dutch violinist, Simone Lamsma. It may be the most introspective version of the piece I’ve heard, not about fireworks and a dramatically physical statement of how hard the music is, but simple clarity and conviction and understated excellence. Ms. Lamsma was extraordinary although her accompaniment was a little rugged at times.

One is tempted to go back tomorrow night to hear if, after this performance on Saturday night and another this afternoon, a better sense of ensemble has come together and, especially, to hear if the transitions will be managed more deftly. I got the sense that the conductor knew what he wanted with the transitions, but he was unable to get it from the orchestra—were they under-rehearsed or unable/unwilling to follow? Hard to know.

Fortunately, the weakness in accompaniment did not take away from Ms. Lamsma’s accomplishment. An appreciative audience was on its feet immediately and we were treated to a fascinating encore, a sonata by Eugène Ysaÿe for solo violin, which was a great choice to balance the kinetic energy of the the Tchaikovsky finale.