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Monday, May 20, 2013

Friday Night at the Symphony: Facing Gunfire, Laughing in the Tyrant's Face

Posted by 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:

Since then, governments have learned to silence demands with less fanfare. Ours warehouses people in rural counties, intimidates them one or two at a time while they’re jogging in the park, or shuffles them away to solitary after secretive grand jury hearings. While I was listening, I couldn’t help but wonder what combination of instruments could convey the special combination of preemptive surveillance and long-distance discipline our government specializes in now? Or is an orchestra the wrong medium—maybe a ballet would be better?

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.


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Matt from Denver 1
Wish I could have been there. I have a pretty good recording Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony made of the 11th, so it would have been nice to see live. But, I'm not about to fly 1300 miles for any concert, at least not just yet.
Posted by Matt from Denver on May 21, 2013 at 8:09 AM · Report this

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