Saturday, October 04, 2008


October 3rd, 2008

This evening’s program with the National Symphony was an overture by Beethoven, followed by his fourth piano concerto, and after intermission, Shostakovich’s Fifth. I bought a chorister ticket, because: 1. I’d never been in the chorister, and I was curious, and 2. chorister seats are cheap. You have to go through a box to get to the chorister, and there you are, nestled between organ pipes behind the stage, looking down a cliff at the tops of the musicians’ heads. The conductor faces you the entire time, and you feel as if you’re, if not part of the symphony, liable to be drafted at any moment. Which, for those of us completely bereft of talent, is terrifying.

Oh, and some jackass booed, loudly, after the National Anthem. Who does that? Nobody paid much attention: we all were embarrassed—not by the guy, but for him.

The view from the chorister is good—more on that later. My guess as to the reason for the affordability of the seats is that the sound is rather muddy, which isn’t surprising, as the orchestra’s arranged to project music in the opposite direction of us choristers. So while we get ample percussion, the woodwinds are strangely distant, and even the piano comes out sounding over-pedaled.

But from my perch, I also got to see Hélène Grimaud’s adorable tush every time she bowed. I personally, heroically, kept clapping long after she finished the concerto, bringing her out once, twice, and then the hat trick, to bow again and again.

I came for the piano concerto, which is a piece I’m fond of, but I was most moved by the Shostakovich. The symphony is—and I mean this term as a positive—gruesome. Lonely melodies in the woodwinds, interrupted by snide marches, and now and then a plaintive swell of strings. There’s a disgusting waltz that left me feeling ill, tense. I’m seldom so affected by a performance, much less by a piece by a composer I’m not particularly fond of.

In the chorister, the percussion-heavy finale actually shook the seats.

Shostakovich was the most prominent victim of Stalinist censorship. It’s an open question as to whether Stalin actually disliked his music, or simply needed a whipping boy to keep the rest of the Soviet artists in line. Nowadays people like to read hidden dissent in all his pieces, finding in his sycophantic odes to Communist glory some buried message of protest.

Some of this is a snipe hunt. But, nonetheless, the Fifth Symphony’s finale, entirely hammered out in D minor, ends in a sudden blare of major, timpani notes bouncing, brass unleashed. It’s hard to believe this was anything but kowtowing to the authorities, for ending in minor would be tragic, and what source for sadness could there be in the Soviet state? So a howl of agony ends in a cheerful smirk.

The effect is ridiculous. Even after the major takes over, the composer throws in a few discordant notes (but not too many!) to make us question the authenticity of this sudden joy. And the percussion is too heavy, everything far too loud, and the irony is there, even if kept as ambiguous as safety demands. But sarcastic or not, it still sounds silly and incongruous, and I wish he could have written the ending he’d wanted and the piece deserved.

Leah’s short friend—whose name I don’t know to spell and whom I will thus, in the spirit of political correctness, simply refer to as the Smurf—commented that live performances must be so distracting for the classical music lover, for he can no longer concentrate solely on the music, but rather has his attention continuously drawn by the movements of the performers. I agree—if I want to learn a piece, attending a performance is a lousy method; I prefer finding a score on the IMSLP and following along.

Still, the Shostakovich had my full attention.

I’ve been listening to lectures on economic history. As to the Marx lecture, which I enjoyed: at some time I ceased dividing people and ideas into groupings based on good and evil, and began rather to distinguish things based on what is interesting and what is not. I’m happier for that, though less zealous.


Leah said...

So, I feel your post warrants a bit of additional commentary. Obviously, such a serious post precludes reference to my critique of the piece, though I attribute some of that to the conductor, not necessarily Shostakovich.

By and large, I really enjoyed the Shostakovich, and the performance reinforced why I love Russian composers, writer, philosophers . . . There's something gloriously depressing about it that reaches into your very soul and makes you care, whether you want to or not. Kish saw this as "jarring." I saw it as genius. Helene Grimaud is known for having a palpable deep emotional connection with her music, yet it was Shostakovich that engaged you, much like you can never erase the haunting morals of Crime and Punishment. Obviously, it's less subtle than Beethoven, but you can't ignore it, and you can't forget it.

In college, I went through a Russophile phase and took a number of courses from a crazy (in a wonderful way) Russian woman. The topic of class conversation frequently evolved into a rumination on what it was that made Russians so dark, so brooding, so alcoholic. The book The Slave Soul of Russia: Moral Masochism and the Cult of Suffering (really, who would own such a lighthearted work, anyway?) tries to answer this question, and I had to pull it down off the shelf in the context of this conversation. Or reading Marx works, too.

It was a shame that you missed out on the full glory of the woodwind solos - they reminded you that Shostakovich can be subtle and delicate when he wants to be. On a final note, I have to disagree about seeing live performances. Granted, you might have to shut your eyes to really focus, but there's an energy that comes from live performance that can never be replaced. I always come away inspired and with a grin on my face. But maybe that's because I'm not a serious enough student. On the other hand, classical music is written to be heard live, and no recording can ever do it justice.

Scott said...

My God, way to outnerd me.

Leah said...

Damn straight. Never challenge me to a nerd dual.

And I've got no car for you to key, so I have nothing to lose by beating you.

Beyond the Russian psyche, though, I got nuthin.

someone said...

you should definitely listen to a group called Penguin Cafe Orchestra. They have a very interesting sounds that I personally love, not sure how much you'd like it, but I think you just might! :)

Jacob Lyles said...

"Good" and "evil" are parts of a shorthand-language that is useful in political propaganda. Economics as practiced in the academy has no place for it. Economics as practiced on the editorial page does.

Also, good and evil may have some meaning when economics is practiced in parliaments. When policies are implemented that cause harm in order to satisfy the whims/stupidity/cowardice of the power elite, "evil" may be an appropriate term.

Jacob Lyles said...

But you're right, it's hard to appreciate another person's point of view when you are condemning him for not sharing yours.

Scott said...

Is your position thus that the academic economists should practice only positive and not normative economics?

Jacob Lyles said...

Well, Economics borders on philosophy on one side and statistics on the other side. It is certainly okay for philosophers to be normative. Good philosophers still don't refer to other schools of thought or their practitioners as "evil" the way a Misesian or a Randian would.

Scott said...

Good philosophers still don't refer to other schools of thought or their practitioners as "evil" the way a Misesian or a Randian would.

I don't know about that. With moral philosophers, designating some as evil and some as not is pretty much the point.

Jacob Lyles said...

I suppose I am proposing the separation of intellectual pursuit and advocacy.

Scott said...

Separate how?