Sunday, March 19, 2017

Grappling with the question of "Shostakovich triumphant" at an ISO concert

Joshua Weilerstein: Affable, capable and with a message to deliver.
Guest conductor Joshua Weilerstein, slender, boyish and wavy-haired, gave a little speech from the podium Saturday evening before he led the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 in D minor.

It's bold to put into words the effect one wants to have on an audience before delivering the effect musically, but conductors like to try it with problematic pieces. Mario Venzago made a habit of such explanations, and Krzysztof Urbanski, his successor as music director, has gotten more comfortable doing so.

The talk was quite apropos, as the Shostakovich Fifth emerged out of social and political conditions unimaginable (so far!) to Americans today. How to take it for what it meant in 1937 can provide guidance to its significance in 2017. In brief, Weilerstein described the work's origin as the composer's attempt to remove himself from danger, and keep at least his career alive, after having displeased Josef Stalin with an edgy opera premiered the year before. And he ended up trumping Stalin (pun unavoidable), or did he?
Influential LP cover (not my copy, which was monaural, and has gone missing)

The oft-quoted subtitle, now believed to have been provided for Shostakovich, not by him, usually runs like this: "A Soviet artist's creative reply to justified criticism." Until the publication of Solomon Volkov's "Testimony" in 1979, a book purported to be the composer's memoir, the humility in that subtitle was taken at face value, and the music's progress from difficulty through despair to triumph was seen as self-evident.

Volkov had Shostakovich saying "all my symphonies are tombstones," and the ending of the Fifth is supposed to convey forced joy. Like so many other listeners, I took the work as a successful apology subsumed in a patriotic statement, monumental and artistically worthy (though Shostakovich has long had eminent detractors, like the late Pierre Boulez, who dismissed his music as "a bunch of cliches").

As a teenager, I owned and often listened to Leonard Bernstein's recording with the New York Philharmonic and readily subscribed to the "self-evident triumph" interpretation. His tempos were on the fast side (except for the Largo, of course), and though I no longer have the LP, I remember his approach to the second movement (Allegretto) was buoyant and bouncy, not sardonic (as Weilerstein described it, proceeding to elicit such an interpretation).

In those days, one often listened to records while gazing at the cover art. In this case that was a photo of Bernstein gripping the hand of the composer after a performance of the work on the Philharmonic's Soviet Union tour. And the normally dour Shostakovich is smiling! So I naively identified happiness as the work's authentic, hard-earned outcome. Besides, I was already familiar with the equally genuine ascent toward transcendent joy in the symphonic tradition launched by Beethoven's third, fifth and ninth symphonies.

I now mostly accept Weilerstein's conviction that any triumph that emerges in the work is of the nose-thumbing variety. What a self-absorbed tyrant may take for a celebration of life in his country is, in this view, a surreptitious assault hammered home at an unsuspecting philistine autocrat. In this regard, it's pertinent to note that one commentator on the work, D. Kern Holoman, renders the famous subtitle as "a Soviet artist's practical creative reply to justified criticism." In the context of all I've just said, the word "practical" speaks volumes.

The ISO played the piece with its recent adaptability to visiting maestros fully in evidence. The long, slow opening of the work managed to convey tentativeness emotionally without being tentatively executed.  When the piano and low horns bring on the fast tempo, the effect was galvanizing. In the Allegretto, the way small figures are flipped around (the flute seems to go  "yoo-hoo!") had the sardonic quality Weilerstein had promised, particularly in the horn melody.

After the Largo rises to a huge climax, the return to the movement's opening mood was as enchanting as the memory of a disturbing dream. The string sections' command of pianissimo has been well taught them by Venzago and Urbanski. The general onslaught of the finale was quite rapid, but flexible; perhaps Raymond Leppard's attention to the movement's tempo shifts was more scrupulous (in the version included in the "Indianapolis On-the-Air" series), but Weilerstein didn't just plow ahead. He avoided broadening the tempo at the very end, a mistake that tends to emblazon that face-value notion of socially acceptable triumph. The music surged forward, and for me, the composer saves his flipping off of the Soviet leader for when the bass drum underlines the timpani at the very end: "This is for you, Uncle Joe!" And so it was played Saturday night, triple forte but in effect as loud as possible.
Renaud Capucon could hardly have been more suitable to render Bernstein's "Serenade."

The concert's first half confirmed the guest maestro's affinity for modern music. The Shostakovich Fifth was the program's oldest piece. In 1954, Leonard Bernstein wrote "Serenade After Plato's Symposium," a top-drawer reflection for violin and orchestra based on the most substantial Platonic dialogue. (The Republic is in dialogue form, but only as a formality; the liveliness of actual conversation adheres to Symposium, a dinnertime chat in depth about love.)

The five-movement piece is probably Bernstein's most accomplished piece, not counting his stage works. Guest violinist  Renaud Capucon seemed the ideal interpreter. From the opening notes of Phaedras: Pausanias on, his playing emphasized a kind of classical restraint while enfolding the sort of extroverted warmth characteristic of Bernstein. His tone had stature and consistency. He seemed to display the French temperament of holding emotion within bounds without veiling it. The contour of the melody in the first movement called to mind the music Bernstein was to write for Maria in "West Side Story" just a few years later. The way the slow movement (Agathon) ended was a breathtaking achievement. The jazzy revels in the finale as Alcibiades and his buddies crash the party sparkled, and Capucon's dialogue with the solo cello of Austin Huntington in that movement couldn't have been truer to Socratic give-and-take.

To open the concert, John Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" introduced the vast canvases painted by Bernstein and Shostakovich with compact energy. The 1986 piece is an exhilarating five-minute ride. It's the kind of work about which it's hard to know when it is about to go off the rails. It's pretty clear it didn't, but any close calls will have to remain the performers' closely kept secret. It prepared the large, enthusiastic audience for just about anything. And that's exactly what they were to get, in good measure.