Sunday, April 04, 2010

A Superb Shostakovich Eighth at the Symphony

On paper, this week's program at the San Francisco Symphony looked iffy. The concert started with that overplayed warhorse, the Grieg Piano Concerto from 1869-1895, and continued with Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony, an hour-long mixture of grotesque bombast and depression written in the midst of World War Two. I had heard the latter live about thirty years ago performed by the Oakland Symphony conducted by the late Calvin Simmons, and so hated the experience that it put me off Shostakovich for years. People grow older, though, tastes change, and Shostakovich's music is getting better with each passing year, so I decided to give the piece another chance. The happy result was the best concert of the symphony season so far, and one of the greatest live performances I've ever heard.

This was due to a pair of young Eastern Europeans working mostly out of England, the 34-year old Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko (above right) and the 30-year-old Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski (above left), who performed the Grieg poetically and without a trace of the humdrum. The music sounded fresh and surprising, which is saying something in a piece this familiar from daily broadcasts on classical music stations.

This still didn't quite prepare one for the superb conducting and playing in the Shostakovich symphony which could easily be an incoherent mess, but in this version had a dramatic pulse from the first note to the last. The long first movement starts with fifteen minutes of dark, melancholy music for strings that builds into a shrieking fortissimo midway through for the entire orchestra, and just when you don't think you can take the noise any longer, the music returns to the original quiet and melancholy, drifting off beautifully. This is followed by a short, lively fractured march, and a third movement that can only be called demented, with slashing minimalist rhythms bouncing from one part of the orchestra to another.

The fourth movement is a subdued reverie that sounds like a survey of the graves of the dead that morphs into a sweet final movement which basically seems to be saying "life goes on," not in any particularly triumphant way but in a savoring of life's small moments. Midway through this finale, the shrieking war theme returns, but subsides into one of the most beautifully performed quiet endings I have heard in Davies Hall. The audience, or at least those members who hadn't left during the difficult music, were also wonderful, letting the final pianissimos evaporate into pure silence for a good fifteen seconds at the end.

This was live music at its best, with dynamic contrasts that are impossible to capture on a recording, and a young conductor in Vasily Petrenko who could lead the music simply as music, without all the decades of World War II and Cold War historical baggage plastered upfront in the foreground. The performance was a revelation.


Ced said...

You darn right. Glad you reconsidered your intermission apprehension.

That being said, I would not give the audience too much credit for waiting pregnant seconds before applauding. If you miss the clarinet clue that transitions between 4th and 5th, you might still think there's another movement coming. After all, some of the people leaving did it midway through the last movement.

Civic Center said...

Dear Ced: I didn't expect much after listening to a recording yesterday afternoon where the symphony sounded like the same noisy mess I remembered. The performance really did change my mind.

Also, it's difficult music, so I didn't blame people for leaving, especially if you hadn't a clue what was coming next. And do give the audience credit. I was surrounded by loads of elderly Russians who are usually a noisy lot, but they were beautifully behaved during this performance and I loved their collective held breath at the end.

mary ann said...

I have some days off and have FINALLY gotten around to linking your blog on mine. Even though you are waaaaaay more cultural than I, your writing keeps me hooked and I really, really enjoy your blog. Thanks, SF Mike.

Civic Center said...

Dear mary ann: Thanks so much for stopping by with the kind words. Your link doesn't seem to go to your blog, though, so you might want to retry it.

mary ann said...

Oh, what's that mean? More hi tech
work for me, I guess. Thanks, SF Mike.