Dmitri Shostakovich will probably be recorded in musical history as the greatest orchestrator of the 20th century. Perhaps not the greatest composer, although the more I listen to his string quartets, that too seems possible. Shostakovich (1906-75) lived through World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Stalin purges of the 1930's (in which some of his friends were exiled or executed), and World War II. He died while the Cold War was still underway. He had to be politically adept to navigate those fraught environments, and somehow he survived two episodes when his music was denounced as not sufficiently conforming to Soviet realism. It is believed that Joseph Stalin himself authored the scathing denunciation of the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in 1938. A scary thought. One story (possibly apocryphal but plausible) says that for days, he slept outside his apartment so that when the NKVD picked him up, his family wouldn't be disturbed.
On Friday the Brevard Music Center Orchestra, conducted by its artistic director Keith Lockhart, delivered an all-Shostakovich program consisting of two very different works. Piano Concerto No. 2 is a short, happy work for a happy event. Symphony No. 7 is a lengthy, psychologically-intense work completed during the 872-day siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in which more than a million Russians died – some by German artillery shelling, most of starvation and disease. Not a happy time.
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F, Op. 102, was premiered in 1957 by Dmitri Shostakovich's 19-year-old son Maxim in his audition for the Moscow Conservatory. Needless to say, he was accepted. Stalin had died in 1953, and things were looking up. At Brevard, the Russian-American pianist Kirill Gerstein was the soloist for this twenty-minute concerto. Gerstein was a visibly collaborative musician, frequently turning his head to absorb the sense of what the orchestra was doing, not just what the conductor was indicating. He handled the extreme dynamic range of the first movement well, and in the third movement embraced the first theme of the sonata allegro, and then underscored the contrast with the brash, jazzy, percussive second theme. But the second movement was the most attractive of the three. In this Andante, his legato touch spread notes like melted butter on a flatbread.
The audience demanded an encore, and Gerstein obliged with a minor Tchaikovsky piece. I wish that he had instead played one of the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues. They are another part of this composer's greatness. That choice would have kept the program "all-Shostakovich all of the time."
Following intermission, concertmaster David Coucheron tuned the Brevard Music Center Orchestra, Lockhart took the podium, and the symphony began. Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 60, subtitled "Leningrad," is an oversize symphony performed by an oversize orchestra: 105 or 110 musicians including 21 brass players and six or so percussionists. Hearing the symphony live is a profound experience. More than seventy-five minutes later it ended, and then I realized just how emotionally draining this work had been. The half-hour-long first movement, a sonata allegro, is interrupted by the "Invasion Theme" (so named by others, not by Shostakovich), a banal tune that begins with pizzicato violins and violas, undergirded by pianissimo snare drums. The tune is repeated a dozen times, in various instrumental combinations, growing louder in each repetition, until six trumpets, six trombones and eight French horns are blasting it out as a cacaphonous orchestra with clashing cymbals depicts the chaos of war (or, in another interpretation, the chaos of the German invasion plus the chaos of Stalin's brutal purges). This is difficult music to perform, and the mostly-student-musician orchestra made occasional small errors. Lockhart, a fine educational conductor, kept the large forces coordinated with his clear beat and many cues.
That conducting style (which some professional orchestra members would find to be "overconducting") continued in the second movement, which Shostakovich had initially called "Memories." The movement begins with second violins and cellos, and then moves to a fuller orchestra. To me, this represents memories from the unconscious (the inner string parts) moving to the conscious mind (first violins) – a brilliant piece of orchestration.
It was a very damp evening (Lockhart had welcomed the audience to "the Brevard underwater experience"), and humidity changes are a problem for musicians in an outdoor venue. The orchestra paused after the second movement, retuned, and continued with the Adagio third movement. This is the movement that demonstrates resistance most directly. There is anger. There is defiance. There is a sense of "never, never, never will we be slaves."
The final movement was originally entitled "Victory," but this is not a joyous triumph. The movement, Allegro non troppo, uses low strings in a percussive fashion, provides heart-rending waves of quiet emotion, and leaves the listener with the sense that while we will persevere, we don't know what may come next. The composer is depicting a tragic victory. If you like your music to have a program, you can write one for this movement. Perhaps Shostakovich is saying, "St. Petersburg survived the Stalinist purges. St. Petersburg will survive the German siege. But what comes next for my poor city?"
Symphony No. 7 is simultaneously a great work of pure art and an evocation of the human spirit. It celebrates the ability of common man to survive in defiance of tyranny. It is one of the most important of Shostakovich's fifteen symphonies, and the Brevard Music Center students in the orchestra for this performance have had an exceptional opportunity in being chosen to play it. We in the audience also were blessed.
The Brevard Music Festival continues. For more on upcoming performances see our calendar.