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Tonu Kalam, music director of the University of North Carolina Symphony Orchestra, had chosen an intriguing and unhackneyed program of works by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) for the opening concert of the 2017-18 season. The last of the composer's three symphonies from the 1930's was paired with a surprisingly happy piano concerto that followed in the wake of the release of major compositions that came after the cultural easing after Joseph Stalin's death in 1953. Associate Professor Clara Yang was the brilliant piano soloist. The Beasley-Curtis Auditorium in Memorial Hall was well-filled with music lovers and friends and relatives of the all student 90-member orchestra.
Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2 in F, Op.102 was composed in 1957 as both a birthday present and a solo vehicle for his nineteen-year-old son Maxim Shostakovich's graduation from Moscow Conservatory. That same year the composer had released long-withheld scores such as the Violin Concerto, the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Quartets, and the Tenth Symphony, all deeply serious masterpieces. The Second Piano Concerto is the composer's happiest and most direct work. It is scored with a deft touch creating a work bursting with extroverted high spirits. A lively Allegro is followed by an affectionate slow movement in the major mode leading to a rambunctious Allegro with a tricky 7/8 rhythm.
Kalam directed a splendid performance, skillfully balancing the orchestra's dynamics around Yang scintillating account of the almost non-stop playing of the solo. Her dynamic range was breathtaking and her spinning out of the nocturne-like Andante was entrancing. Her playing of the solo cadenza was spectacular. One memorable point, in the slow movement was her solo subtly supported by a pp first horn. Every section of the orchestra was alert and responsive.
Because of increasing Stalinist "socialist realism" artistic repression, the latter half of the 1930s were dark and edgy times for Shostakovich. His opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934 premiere) was denounced as "muddle instead of music" and "modernist formalism" of the worst kind. The composer was forced to publicly admit his errors. His Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47, subtitled A Soviet Artist's Reply to Just Criticism, served to rehabilitate his reputation because of what he called "the emotional tone of moments of tragedy and tension." In contrast to the four-movement Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich wrote in August 1939 that the three-movement Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op.54 prevailed with "music on a contemplative and lyrical level." The three movements contrast in mood and tempo. A very slow Largo is followed by a fast Allegro and ends with a very fast Presto. The Sixth Symphony was premiered in Leningrad on November 5, 1939.
Kalam led an intense, masterful performance of this too-under-appreciated work. The large Largo ran the gamut from full orchestra soaring full throttle to many subtle, chamber music-like episodes. The massed violas and cellos that opened the Largo were full and rich and played with clean, exact ensemble. Among the spare episodes was a spacious ensemble of harp, piccolo, and contrabassoon. Another was a flute duo, played by Megan Golliher and Abby Jean Bergman, over hushed low strings, violas, cellos, and double basses. Fine solos were had from concertmaster Vivek Menon, oboist Jack Livingston, and Katie Michalak on English horn. Almost everyone in the clarinet section had solos: Andrew Huang on B-flat clarinet, Andrew Warwick on a high E-flat clarinet, and Michael Mallory on bass clarinet. Katherine Gora Combs' high soaring piccolo could hardly have been missed! This was a richly satisfying performance on the part of everyone.