Saturday, February 7, 2015

Indianapolis Symphony's Midwinter Festival presents a tremendous finale with the Shostakovich Seventh

A charming footnote in "Musicophilia," one of Oliver Sacks' fascinating books on oddities of neurology, makes short work of the legend that Dmitri Shostakovich got so close to danger during  the siege of Leningrad that he sustained shrapnel injuries to the head that assisted his composing.

The leading U.S. news magazine invents a war hero.
The brain can produce musical hallucinations by various means, including injury. Supposedly, the Soviet composer in the aftermath of service as a fire warden accessed musical inspiration by tilting his head in a certain way: Music would pour in. Sacks suggests that the story was an outgrowth of the government's exaggeration of Shostakovich's involvement in the defense of what is once again St. Petersburg.

What we heard Friday night from the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra at the Hilbert Circle Theatre is most likely the result of normal hard work, skill, and inspiration. Some of it may have arisen before the Nazi invasion of the homeland that was briefly Germany's ally. Most was put in final form while the war against the invader raged, at a safe distance from the action.

Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7 in C major, the "Leningrad," had never been performed by the ISO until this weekend. That contrasts with the 70-minute work's enormous popularity during World War II, where the legend of the composer's personal sacrifice as well as American attempts to become comfortable with our new Communist ally led both to a Time magazine cover and 62 wartime performances of the work by U.S. orchestras. Before the war ended, according to Michael Steinberg, the great C major symphony had vanished from the repertory; American audiences preferred the Fifth, as they have ever since.

Krzysztof Urbanski led an overwhelming performance of the "Leningrad" Friday night, preceding it
Dmitri Shostakovich in uniform, far from one of the battles.
with an extensive demonstration of its themes, their development and repurposing in the course of the work, and the significance of it all. It was clear that he sees the Seventh in explicitly programmatic terms, though his analysis avoided sentimentalizing the music.

Nonetheless, his interpretation — masculine and feminine themes contrasting at the first movement's outset, but clearly defined, complementary and offering a pacific prewar portrait of the city, then undergoing devastation at the onslaught of the "invasion" music only to emerge wounded, elegiac — stood in sharp contrast to that of Russell Scott Valentino, chairman of the department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures at Indiana University.

In "First Mondays at the ISO" Feb. 3, Valentino belittled the notion that "the victory of light over darkness" (Time's phrase)  is what the symphony is about— at least insofar as it depicts Leningrad's holding out against great odds, thus giving hope to the Allies when the war seemed to be going Hitler's way.

He urged the Wood Room audience to consider Stalin's hatred of Leningrad and his persecution of artists and intellectuals there (including many of Shostakovich's friends) as the real-world foreground to what emerged as the Seventh Symphony. Viewed that way, the composition is a paean to the city and its heroism in the face of much more than the German threat. "Stalin was as responsible for as many deaths in Leningrad as Hitler," Valentino said. The city's wartime trials by a foreign army amounted to a costly, ironic "reprieve" from Stalin's domestic paranoia.

Accordingly, the "invasion" theme that squats foursquare on the first movement's development is more a portrait of the insidious control totalitarianism has over the populace it rules: It creeps in, selects its first victims unpredictably, then clamps down on everybody. Valentino believes the invasion theme is too gradual, too banal to depict the formidable German enemy. The fact that brass-intense dissonance nearly overwhelms the march tune is a sign that a brutal government engaged in a struggle against another brutal government results in even-handed ruin for ordinary people.

Regardless of any anti-Soviet message in the score, Urbanski and the ISO treated it all with expressive breadth and dignity. I particularly admired the noble tone of the viola-section melody in the third movement and the oboe and bass clarinet solos over delicate accompaniments in the second. Also well delineated in Friday's performance: the scoring of the obsessively repeated invasion theme that's nearly as ingenious as that of Ravel's "Bolero," which it resembles in its protracted crescendo over a nonstop snare-drum pattern.

In context, and whatever it means, the nine minutes of obsessive hammering at one's sensitivities is an artistic triumph. True, it is likely to create as persistent an "ear worm" as you've ever had, turning any listener into a prospective patient of Dr. Sacks'.  But it helps make the final triumph in the last minutes of the fourth movement justifiably hard-won, where an unclouded major chord emerges only at the very end.

If we're hearing victory in music, most of us want it established somewhat sooner, as in the glaring D-major peroration of the Fifth Symphony. Then again, that victory is harder to believe in than the one that claws its way to the summit of this wartime masterpiece. However you may tilt your head, the spirit of Shostakovich wants you to share in Leningrad's struggle in outsized musical terms. There's one more chance to do so, as Urbanski and the ISO play the piece again tonight at the Palladium.