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.