Friday Night at the Symphony: Facing Gunfire, Laughing in the Tyrant's Face
by Jen Kagan
on Mon, May 20, 2013 at 12:01 PM
Along the timeline of humans getting together to push wind through slick metal and make strings vibrate, Dmitri Shostakovich sits between 1906 and 1975. He worked in Russia, which he loved, under Stalin, whom he didn’t. This state of affairs meant that many of Shostakovich’s compositions function as giant double entendres: anti-Czarist on the face and anti-Soviet just under the surface. As many of his artist and intellectual friends fled the country or were disappeared, he chose to stay and write some seriously agonizing and frightening sounds. It’s exhilarating to be moved by them because to do so is to participate in Shostakovich’s subversion, to get away with laughing in the tyrant’s face without him knowing.
Friday’s Seattle Symphony program included three of Shostakovich’s works. The first was Festive Overture (1954), which features the symphony orchestra as an industrious music-making machine. On Friday, the machine was operated by Gerard Schwarz, SSO's former music director, who stepped back onto the Benaroya podium for the night. With a wave of his arms, horns! A gesture, and the strings responded at once. Each cog in the machine announced its presence, separately, quickly, before they all got back to work together. The piece is a Stalinist’s wet dream, officially composed for the anniversary of the 1917 revolution and maybe, unofficially, to celebrate Stalin’s death the year before.
Next, the Cello Concerto No. 1 (1959) featured Gerard's son, Julian—and made the younger Schwarz sweat. He'd take his red handkerchief out of his pocket, wipe his forehead and the neck of his instrument, and get back in position just in the nick of time. This 21-year-old is what swagger looks like on a cellist, and the incredibly complicated, restless, nightmarish piece justified it.
Finally, Symphony No. 11 (1957) dropped the audience in St. Petersburg’s Palace Square leading up to the 1905 Bloody Sunday massacre, in which thousands of unarmed protesters approached the palace gates and were met with gunfire.
The first movement started with long, eerie string sounds that proceeded reluctantly as the timpani and distant horn signaled something wicked approaching. There were no people in the square yet, but eventually they would gather in the snow to demand not-so-outlandish things like living wages. Rumor (from the London Philharmonic Orchestra podcast) has it that Shostakovich’s father was there that day. The drumming grew louder and closer, until a confrontation between state boots and everyone else became inevitable. Two minutes of pure hell start at 32:00:
The violent drums, big brass, and angry bells that close out Shostakovich’s Eleventh don’t offer comfort or closure or victory to anyone who was in the Palace Square in 1905. Or to anyone who was listening in the audience in 1957. The struggle continues.