Monday, September 17, 2012

Super Shostakovich at the SF Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony has started the season with a guest conductor, Semyon Bychkov above, rather than music director Michael Tilson Thomas because he is off galivanting with one of his other orchestras in early September. So the official SF Symphony gala opening is not until this Wednesday evening when he returns, but it mattered not a whit after the superb Shostakovich Eleventh Symphony performance this past week.

The concert started with a slow motion rendition of Schubert's early nineteenth century Unfinished Symphony, with a reduced orchestra. The eccentrically stretched out tempos Bychkov was asking for sounded interesting at first, and then the taffy pulling finally made the music sound dull, which it is not, even though it has been seriously overplayed.

Dullness and familiarity were not issues with the performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony from 1957. This exciting, moving, hour-long symphony with its terrifically loud and soft dynamics wasn't premiered in San Francisco until 1985, and has only been performed again once, by MTT in 2000, before last week's concerts. The orchestra gave a performance on Saturday night that was one of the most beautiful and powerful things I've ever heard. (The dudes at intermission above were composer Nicholas Pavkovic on the far left and SF Labor leader Tim Paulson on the far right. Their friends in the middle are unknown.)

The Eleventh is subtitled The Year 1905. Reading the program describing what's supposedly happening in each of the four movements is mildly interesting. Reading the music through the prism of what Shostakovich Really Meant Politically is less interesting, partly because that particular guessing game has been the dominant strain in so much writing about the composer. The Cold War is long over, and the most interesting fact about Shostakovich The Soviet Composer is that he never got the message that the symphony was dead. He just kept plugging away, writing fifteen symphonies that 
are the 20th century heirs to Mahler's huge, novelistic sprawls where the entire world has been stuffed inside. They are also fantastically varied, from short and playful to gargantuan, sometimes with voices and most often without.

Shostakovich's work is at an historical moment where it is starting to transcend all the programs with which it's been saddled, because this music is so abstractly great on its own terms. The opening strains of this Eleventh Symphony, which keep repeating insistently throughout the entire score, is one of the most gorgeous, despairing pieces of music ever written. Let us hope for the moment when Shostakovich's symphonies become as overplayed as those of Mahler, Beethoven and Brahms, not to mention Schubert.

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