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Raleigh Civic Symphony Salutes Shostakovich & Foy

by John W. Lambert

The Raleigh Civic Symphony Association tends to put on mini-festivals in the spring. This year the subject is Shostakovich, and the excuse (if one were needed) is the 100th anniversary of the composer's birth. But there's a second reason for celebration this go-'round: it's also the 10th anniversary of the appointment of Randolph Foy as Music Director and Conductor of what is now called the RCSA. Foy inherited a good program and made it much, much better. He arrived with a reputation as a new-music person, but all along he's worked on the basics, and the results have been impressive, for he's managed to build and enhance the prowess of the Raleigh Civic Symphony, which was featured in the Stewart Theatre concert of April 23, and to create a whole new ensemble, the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra, which will offer the second part of the festival on April 30. Foy has also brought superior program-making skills to NCSU, so his concerts are always healthy mixtures of familiar and less-well-known scores. And he's a wonderful and engaging educator, too, so his remarks, program notes, and all the other bits and pieces that contribute to a total concert experience nowadays are right up there with the best our region has to offer. Somebody ought to be giving this guy a medal or something – and maybe somebody will!

Shostakovich (1906-75) was the leading composer of the Soviet Union. He was prolific and popular, some of the time, and in some quarters. He's grown larger than life since he passed away. And his reputation had benefited from publicity that has attended more than a little controversy about the path he followed during his creative life. Some of these issues were addressed on April 23 in a fine pre-concert lecture, read by David Greene. Other aspects of this ongoing debate inform part of Foy's fine program notes. But one of the nice things about music and its meanings is that people may enjoy them on their own terms. Thus one can hear anger, cynicism, satire, angst, remorse, love, homage, and every other emotion in Shostakovich's music – and of course in the music of others, too.

Now as it happened, Foy cleverly juxtaposed two diametrically opposed kinds of Soviet music in this first concert. The program began with seven numbers culled from two suites compiled by Aram Khachaturian from his 1942 ballet Gayaneh. The best-know number – the "Sabre Dance" – was included, but so, too, were other, less familiar bits. All are based on folk or folk-like melodies, which appealed to the Powers that Were, at the time. Hearing this substantial collection of music was a bit like revisiting the Moiseyev Russian Folk Ballet, so joyous and exuberant were the selections. The orchestra played handsomely, with stellar work from the woodwinds, brasses, strings, and percussionists. Indeed, this is an orchestra that keeps on improving. The principals play from strength, mostly, and balance is almost always good. (It would be worth naming lots of names, but we'd wind up citing all the section heads and more.) For now, then, let's just say that the music was expertly realized and set up the substantial audience with uplifting, lush, lively tunes that were only occasionally melancholy. But of course this was Khachaturian, the composer of the flashy Piano Concerto that formed the basis of William Kapell's career, and of the flashy Violin Concerto, that helped introduce David Oistrakh to the West. Shostakovich's music was, at intermission, still to come.

When the concert resumed, it was with the Symphony No. 5, in d minor, Op. 47, of Shostakovich, composed in 1937. It's a reasonably well-known score, and it's one of the master's most popular symphonies. It's playable by superior youth orchestras and community orchestras and the big boys (and girls), too. It carries a certain amount of baggage but it wears well and it almost always excites its hearers. It has certain political overtones that can be accepted or ignored ad lib. People who lived through WWII, when the Russians were our friends, sometimes see it as a predictor of coming gloom capped by eventual triumph. When Bernstein took the NY Philharmonic to Russia during the Cold War, this music (and the Seventh Symphony, too) meant other things. Now we're friends with the Russians again, more or less, so this time it spoke at different levels. It is this capability to say different things to different people – or different things to the same people, at different times – that makes this music great – and that makes "classical" music in general worth hearing again and again. One horn solo was somewhat misshapen, but otherwise the Raleigh Civic Symphony did a fabulous job with the Shostakovich Fifth. The other solo bits were almost without exception superior. The tempi were astutely chosen. Foy provided deft cues, precise cut-offs, good shaping and sensitive dynamic control. The crowd responded with enthusiasm, rewarding the Maestro and his musicians with sustained applause. It was good. And there'll be more next week, same time, same place, when the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra performs the Suite from Hypothetically Murdered and the Chamber Symphony, Op. 83a.


We've mentioned Bernstein, whose romp thru the Shostakovich Fifth remains available on CD. But this work provides an opportunity to mention the shift in our (public) reaction to new music since 1937. The piece was premiered by Eugene Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic and then taken up around the world. It was a time when new works were valued and when conductors vied to present them. Within a couple of years of the premiere, Stokowski had set down a commercial recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra – on 78 r.p.m. records. And within a decade, US consumers could purchase recordings by Mravinsky, Stoki, and Rodzinski (conducting the Cleveland Orchestra). Bear in mind, too, that these records followed concerts and broadcasts that carried this music all over America – and that continued to do so for Shostakovich, in particular, during the war and beyond, till the mid-'60s, at the very least. It's hard to imagine any new work today being received nationally, never mind internationally, like Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony was, just 70 years ago. The loss, methinks, is ours.

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