“Don’t you remember what it was like to live during that time?” bellowed the lanky conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky to his orchestra. It was during a rehearsal for Shostakovich’s fifth symphony circa 1982 that, as the story goes, he was displeased with the orchestra’s lackluster playing of such an emotional piece. He carefully raised the baton again and the sound was transcendent.

The players involved in University of North Carolina School of the Arts Symphony Orchestra’s “Russian Fireworks” concert at the Stevens Center did not live during that time, although their devotion to the piece would have anyone thinking that they had. The concert was led by recently appointed conductor Christopher James Lees and featured as solo pianist faculty member Dmitri Shteinberg.

The first half of the program was devoted to Shostakovich’s predecessors Modest Mussorgsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Opening the concert was the Prelude from Khovanschina, a rare treat to hear played nowadays. This prelude set the tone for the evening: grimly ironic yet maintaining a sense of beauty and ache. The prelude is a tricky piece, a “calm before the storm” in the context of the opera: beautiful lines from the violas and winds give us a chance to relax before hearing the violent story of the Moscow Uprising. Bravo to Maestro Lees for programming this because the piece has a Shostakovich connection: Shostakovich himself in 1959 revised the score and that remains the version that is performed today.

The second piece on the program, Rachmaninoff’s acclaimed Piano Concerto No. 2, featured accomplished faculty member Dmitri Shteinberg in his element. Shteinberg played with clear dexterity and feeling, balancing both to the point that the opening movement gave me flashbacks of the opening credits of David Lean’s film Brief Encounter.*

The orchestra accompanied Shteinberg well in the second movement, although Maestro Lees’ tempi seemed a beat slower than what Shteinberg was playing during the faster passages, and the orchestra had to catch up during a few of the faster, trickier sections. I attribute this to the sound from the orchestra being so big in that hall that it even drowned out the grand piano at times. Regardless of those tricky spots, tough for any orchestra, the performance of the piece still had audience members flying to their feet in an ovation. I wouldn’t have minded hearing the whole thing again, as an encore.

The evening culminated in a performance of Shostakovich’s historic Symphony No. 5. Maestro Lees spoke before the piece about the history of the fifth symphony and why it is such an important piece in not just music history but also world history.

The Fifth Symphony sits in the pantheon of Western Music accomplishments with The Rite of Spring, Britten’s War Requiem, and Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, as pieces which carry historical significance. During a performance of the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Russian leader Joseph Stalin was outraged at the lack of traditional operatic lyricism and by the dark, erotic undertones to the story. The next day in the Communist Party paper Pravda, an article appeared entitled “Muddle – Not Music,” criticizing Shostakovich and the opera for displaying Russian politics and people in insulting ways. Chastised and ridiculed, Shostakovich feared his fate would be that of his compatriots: exiled and forgotten to history.

As a chance to “redeem” himself, Shostakovich wrote the Fifth Symphony, complying with the Communist party’s emphasis on music falling into a more conservative school of thought so as to be more accessible to a broad audience. The symphony managed to balance the composer’s ache and feelings of being trapped by the political strains that bound him – the first and third movements contain passages of utter pain and beauty – but it was the last movement that saved him.

The final pages of the symphony were, at one time, famously played fast, as Bernstein did it in his celebrated New York Philharmonic recording. In Bernstein’s tempi interpretation, the Soviet officers win, as the ending is joyous and exhilarating. It wasn’t until the Mravinsky recordings became available in the West that it became known that Shostakovich’s original intention was for the final pages to be taken slowly.

Maestro Lees stayed true to the composer’s wishes and took the finale at the original, slower tempo, and what a difference it made! With a tempo like Bernstein’s, it’s like the Soviet officers are singing: “Hooray hooray for the communist party!” However, Shostakovich’s tempo gives the end an almost nightmarish tone, as if we are hearing what the oppressed Soviet people heard: “You will comply, you will obey, you will be what we want you to be.”

The UNCSA Symphony played the entire work as if they, like Mravinsky’s orchestra, had lived through it. Maestro Lees conducted with knowledge of the piece that reminded me of watching Bernstein conduct Mahler: he knew every corner and turn and approached each with an incredible amount of musicianship. Lees said during his talk before the performance that we live in a different time where art can be freely expressed and accepted. And yet, with the recent events surrounding the Met Opera’s premiere of The Death of Klinghoffer, it seems that music continues to have the power to provoke and disturb. Thankfully, we have such high caliber artists like Lees, Shteinberg, and the UNCSASO around to remind us of this.

*The soundtrack, excerpted here, remains, to me, the pinnacle of the second piano concerto recordings.