Monday, March 03, 2008
Sibelius and Shostakovich at the Symphony
There were four pieces of music on last week's symphony program, and since none of them were much longer than 20 minutes, Patrick Vaz dubbed it a "Small Plates Program."
The opening was a five-minute piece called Agnegram by the symphony's music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, written for a long-time supporter, Agnes Albert. It was bouncy and nicely written, but so wildly derivative of other composers that it became sort of fun to start listing them all off in one's head.
The second piece was also by Tilson Thomas, "Notturno" for Flute, Harp, and Strings which he wrote for Paula Robison (above) who happens to be his sister-in-law by way of his domestic partner. (Actually, since gay marriage isn't legal, the phrase "in-law" is a misnomer. Is there a term yet for those related through domestic partnerdom?) According to its composer, the music "is a "virtuoso piece evoking the lyrical world of Italian music...The piece has a subtext. It's about the role music plays in the life of a musician and the role we musicians play (must play?) in life." For some reason, it gave me a case of the uncontrollable giggles.
These short trifles were followed by a genuine masterpiece, Sibelius' Symphony No. 7, which he wrote in 1924 before sinking into an alcoholic stupor for the next thirty years. It's a really tricky piece to play and absorb, with short, ruminative phrases that keep turning into something else. The big brass resolutions that Sibelius promises, and which he usually delivers in his other music, never does get resolved in this one, ending instead with real, beautiful bleakness. I don't think Tilson Thomas quite gets this music, but the orchestra's rendition of the last five minutes was masterful and the concert was worth it just to hear that finale.
After intermission, they played Shostakovich's relatively short, five-moment Symphony No. 9, and you can hear why it got the composer into trouble yet again with Soviet authorities after its premiere in 1945. Instead of writing a heroic Victory Over The Nazis Symphony, complete with chorus and bombast, which is what he'd been hinting at creating, Shostakovich instead produced a giddy little piece of music with a first movement that could be played at the circus. This is followed by alternating slow, sad movements, and progressively bouncier music, ending with a finale that had the guy sitting next to me almost jumping out of his seat and dancing. Tilson Thomas definitely understood this music and the performance by the orchestra was great.