Friday, March 31, 2006
Rostropovich and Shostakovich, Round 2
Last week's all-Shostakovich concert conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich was just about perfection, but this week's edition was sort of a sprawling, fascinating mess.
We sat in the nosebleed section in Second Tier, where a private corporate event had commandeered one of the outdoor balcony areas away from the peasants who had paid $39 for the cheapest seats.
Though the party looked dreadfully boring, it was still a rather obnoxious sign of the privatization of public space (you're right, Friends of the Library gadfly James Chaffey, you're right!)
The concert started with "Suite No. 1 for Jazz Orchestra," a poorly digested Russian attempt at jazz circa 1934 that had the audience laughing, particularly when the Hawaiian guitar appeared in the third movement.
This was followed by Shostakovich's Second Violin Concerto from 1967, written for David Oistrakh. It was interesting music that probably gets better the more you hear it, but the soloist was the San Francisco Symphony's concertmaster, Alexander Barantschik, and he just wasn't up to the task. His playing was beautiful and he probably got every note right, but the piece really demanded a more gripping soloist who could take you into the heart of the music and its many cadenzas, and instead the playing just sounded dutiful.
After intermission came the choral Symphony No. 13, "Babi Yar," written to five poems by Yeugeny Yevtushenko in 1962. This is an amazing, powerful piece of music but like many Shostakovich symphonies, it went on way too long, particularly after the lengthy first half of the concert.
As if to one-up Benjamin Britten and his all-male opera "Billy Budd," Shostakovich wrote the piece for a soloist and chorus who were all basses. The soloist, a young Russian named Mikhail Petrenko, had a beautiful voice but like the violinist he seemed something of a lightweight. This music demanded a truly great performer.
The poetry by the glamour boy Soviet poet of the 1960s, Yevtushenko, by the way, reads like Rod McKuen verse in its English translation. I certainly hope it's better in Russian.
According to Wikipiedia, Yevtushenko is still alive and teaching at the University of Oklahoma in Tulsa and also at Queens College in New York. My, how the mighty have fallen.
If you get a chance, do check out the concert because your chances of hearing "Babi Yar" live in this lifetime aren't all that great and it is extraordinary music, but you might just want to sneak in at intermission.