Wednesday, May 11, 2016

May Masterworks' Season Finale: Shostakovich & the Comedians

Stuart Malina & the HSO (photo: Curt Rohrer)
Who: The Harrisburg Symphony conducted by Stuart Malina with guest artist, pianist Ann Schein
What: The Suite from Dmitri Kabalevsky's The Comedians; Dmitri Shostakovich's 1st Symphony; the 3rd Piano Concerto of Sergei Rachmaninoff.
When: Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 3pm; (with a pre-concert talk by Dick Strawser an hour before each performance)
Where: The Forum in downtown Harrisburg at 5th & Walnut (behind the State Capitol)
Why: Because Ann Schein is back in town to play Rachmaninoff (if you remember her performance of the Chopin 2nd Concerto in 2014) and how many great symphonies are there in the repertoire by composers under 20? Plus, if you've heard “The Comedians' Galop,” have you ever heard the rest of the delightful music that follows it? Probably not.

In this previous post, you can read about Ann Schein and hear her legendary recording of the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto made when she was 16.

Shostakovich in 1925
Dmitri Shostakovich and the Rehearsal of Fate

Young Dmitri Dmitrievich arrived at ХОГВАРТС, the great wizardly conservatory in St. Petersburg, Russia, when he was 13 and with the support of the headmaster, Alexander Dumbledorovich Glazunov, rose through the ranks to become one of the leading composers of the new Soviet Union, premiering his graduation piece, his first symphony on May 12th, 1926 – ninety years ago this Thursday, by the way.

He was 19 years old at the time.

Throughout his life, Dmitri Shostakovich celebrated May 12th as his “second birthday” – it was the day that would make him famous. By the time he was 20, his Symphony No. 1 had made him internationally famous.

Here is that well-known photograph of the young composer – it was said even at 19 he still looked like a child – and, yes, doesn't he look like Harry Potter, even down to the glasses and tie? Okay, so maybe he doesn't have a scar on his forehead but there is a scar on his soul, born in 1906 and growing up in the midst of the troubled times that finally erupted – “boiled over” might be a better metaphor – into the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the ensuing years of the Civil War and the ensuing years after that of privation and general hardship (for instance, his widowed mother gave piano lessons and her students paid her in bread - and I'm not using slang, here).

And while his meteoric rise to the status of Great Composer might seem Potter-esque, he couldn't have managed without the support of ex-boy-prodigy Alexander Glazunov, the head of the Conservatory (who was definitely a Dumbledore-like character in Shostakovich's life, granted without the beard, if Dumbledore had been an alcoholic), writing letters to the Soviet bureaucrats to ensure Shostakovich his scholarship (as well as his rations) which was not always forthcoming, and smoothing over the animosities that often occurred between the highly talented and the averagely talented students (and faculty) who might resent him.

He had begun planning his first large-scale orchestral work – actually, his first large-scale work, period – in July of 1923 when he was 16 but, since his father had died suddenly the year before, he was unable to concentrate on it because of the time required for his studies, majoring in both piano and composition, and his low-paying gig as a pianist in a local movie theater where he accompanied the silent films. He detested the job but it helped hone his improvisation skills, good for any composer, plus he got to practice while working and often tried out new pieces even if the audience didn't like them. One of his favorite film actors, by the way, was Charlie Chaplin – which, when you think about the quirkiness of the symphony's opening, explains a lot: the sad-sack who, in the end, “triumphs” by merely surviving.

At the beginning of the school year in 1924, his faculty advisory committee set him the challenge of composing a symphony for his graduation. He then began serious work on it, completing the first two movements in early-December and the last two movements in late-April, 1925. The orchestration was finished that summer. So technically, the symphony was officially composed while he was 18 years old – it was premiered when he was 19, a little over four months before his 20th birthday.

By all accounts, it is an amazing piece for an 18-year-old – if not an amazing piece for a first symphony by a composer of any age. Perhaps the most amazing thing is how much he already sounds like the “adult” composer he would become. As with any prodigy, mere mortals stand back in wonder, trying to figure out “where did that come from?”

One aspect of the adult Shostakovich you can already hear in this music is the dual world of humor (whether parody or satire) and tragedy as contrasting elements in the same piece.

In this case the first two movements – written when he was still thinking about calling it a “Symphony-Grotesque” – are the humorous movements with a quirky little march and delicious little waltz in the opening movement (despite being in sonata form, basically, it has more the feel of an overture than the first movement of a grand symphony in the manner of the 19th Century) and then the scherzo with its roughshod opening scramble in the cellos and basses (it is written out so it sounds like the basses can't keep up with the cellos) – later on, we hear a kind of suspended animation where this same passage is played much much slower (and still the basses can't keep up) – and its contrasting section that sounds like a religious procession. After the two contrasting ideas in both movements battle it out simultaneously, we move on.

But something happens at the end of the scherzo. The rambunctiousness is gone in a flash. The ending is suddenly downplayed, muted, questioning.

When the third movement, the long-phrased Largo, begins, we are in a different world, full of reminiscences of the world of Wagner, with all its Tristan references, but rather than sounding like a parody, it turns fully tragic. The impish school-boy has become a wise adult who has suffered – who must have suffered – much.

Even the finale is not the triumph over adversity you would expect from a standard "fate" symphony like Beethoven's or Mahler's Fifths. It's not heroic except when you recall it was heroic merely to survive during these awful years – for a period of time, Shostakovich's student rations consisted of two spoons of sugar and a half-pound of pork every two weeks – and little did anyone know what the future would hold but whatever it was, the view from where many Russians stood was bleak.

I'll be giving the pre-concert talk an hour before each of this weekend's performances, talking about the private world of a young composer that helped shaped the composer he would become.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

You would think there would be more performances of Shostakovich's 1st to choose from on YouTube whether they're live concerts or “audios” with a recording only (usually a collage of graphics, most of which have little to do with the music). While I'd go a great distance to avoid Valery Gergiev, I found two I'll post here: one, with the Soviet conductor, Kirill Kondrashin (best known in the West for being the conductor when Van Cliburn burst on the scene, winning the first Tchaikovsky Competition in 1959), a 1972 recording made in the presence of the composer (the photograph is of Shostakovich and Kondrashin examining the score); the other is with Paavo Järvi and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony recorded in a concert from 2015.
= = = = = = =

= = = = = = =

(In this one, the performance ends c.34:30 – the rest is applause & bows.)
= = = = = = =

Nikolai Malko, 1927
Keep in mind, when Student Shostakovich played through his new symphony for Nikolai Malko who would eventually premiere the piece, it was a 25-minute piece. Even Toscanini, generally regarded as a conductor prone to fast tempos, played it in 26:45. Most performances today clock in between 32 and 34 minutes. While some musicians on my Facebook page questioned the composer's tempo indications, I regret to inform them that, whatever they're imagining, it's probably even faster. But ultimately that's up to the conductor to decide – how accurate are Shostakovich's metronome-markings? Or for that matter, how realistic?

When conductor Malko (supported by Shostakovich's composition teacher, Steinberg, a student of Rimsky-Korsakov's) balked at a couple of things they thought were unplayable at the given tempo, Shostakovich went to a couple of his friends who played in a movie theater orchestra and they played it perfectly (and they weren't conservatory students), proof, the composer said, his tempos should not be changed. Shostakovich wrote a friend something he would always later tell his students, that “practicalities should be learned from performers, not from academics.”

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Dmitri Kabalevsky and the Rise of the Comedians

Dmitri Kabalevsky
The other day, talking about the up-coming concert, Peter Sirotin, the concertmaster of the Harrisburg Symphony who was born in Kharkiv (now in Ukraine) and studied in Moscow, told me he had once met Dmitri Kabalevsky. Peter was in the first grade and about 7 years old at the time, but he remembered “playing trains” with the composer who would then have been in his mid-70s.

“He had come by to work with my father who was arranging music from his 'Comedians' Suite for string quartet.” The Gavotte in particular works very well for quartet and these arrangements, he added, are quite popular in Russia today.

While it's amusing to think of a 76-year-old famous composer sitting on the floor, playing with toy trains with a boy of 7, consider the origins of this music for “The Comedians”: It was commissioned by the same children's theater in Moscow that, two years earlier, had first produced a little something by Prokofiev called Peter and the Wolf.

There are 10 short movements in the Suite which lasts about 15 minutes, total. The most famous is the 'Galop,' the second movement, easily Kabalevsky's most famous piece perhaps on the same Ubiquitous Scale as Khachaturian's 'Saber Dance.'

Here's a Chandos recording with the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Vassili Sinaisky:

= = = = = = =

The original play was by a young Jewish author, Mark Daniel, called “The Inventor and the Comedians,” about Johannes Gutenberg and a group of traveling buffoons. It was composed in 1938-39 and first performed in 1940 – at the beginning of the 2nd World War, to give you some historic perspective. As it turns out, Daniel “died young” the following year. While I can find no information about the playwright, when you put “Jewish,” “died young in 1941” and “the start of World War II” together, a simple statement about “Mark Daniel dying young” becomes far more ominous: the Nazis already occupied Ukraine in 1941, killing nearly 34,000 of Kiev's Jews at Babi-Yar one night in late-September, 1941; the next month, Romanian troops killed 50,000 Jews in Odessa.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Dmitri Kabalevsky was born on December 30th, 1904, just days before what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” the protest-turned-massacre that started what became known as the “Revolution of 1905.”  Shostakovich was born a little over a year later, during the midst of this wave of strikes, protests, and outright rebellions which quickly went far beyond the Imperial capital of St. Petersburg. Both composers grew up during those unsettled years that foreshadowed the two revolutions of 1917 which led to the fall of the Russian Empire in February and the establishment of the Soviet Union in November.

Kabalevsky in the 1940s
Kabalevsky too played piano in the movie houses, but attended the Moscow Conservatory instead, which was, stylistically, more adventuresome and European-oriented than the stodgier St. Petersburg Conservatory where Shostakovich was a student (in fact, at the time he was working on his 1st Symphony, Shostakovich wanted to 'transfer' to Moscow to complete his studies because he thought the atmosphere there might be better for him, musically - didn't happen).

While politics and art are always a risky combination, Kabalevsky embraced Stalin's policy of “socialist realism” (something that is very hard to define but which basically is meant to appeal to the average Soviet citizen, rather than just intellectuals). Technically, he did not become a member of the Communist Party until 1940, the year he produced the “Comedians” Suite – Shostakovich did not officially join until 1958, for that matter – but his having helped organize and then lead the Union of Soviet Composers may have saved him from finding himself in artistic hot water in 1948 when Stalin's henchman, Andrei Zhdanov, issued his decrees against “pro-western Formalists,” composers who were straying from the Party's concept of what was considered “good art.” This was the second time Shostakovich dealt with severe government criticism: the first resulted in his 5th Symphony, “an artist's reply to just criticism” as it was officially subtitled; the second time, to simplify his response, he continued composing but kept the works Stalin would not approve of in his desk drawer till a later time. Kabalevsky's name appeared on Zhdanov's 1948 list but was subsequently removed.

During his career, Kabalevsky won three Stalin Prizes (the equivalent of America's Pulitzer Prizes, perhaps) to Shostakovich's four, yet for all his “serious” symphonies, concertos and operas he felt the musical education of children was an important priority. Throughout his career he composed many teaching-pieces for young players, especially pianists. Some of his concertos – like the Violin Concerto of 1948 – are designed not for virtuosos (though it doesn't sound childish when Oistrakh plays it!) but for talented young artists who need something between their “student works” and the virtuosic masterpieces that will become their eventual goals.

After establishing a pilot music education program in twenty-five Soviet schools, he taught a class of seven-year-olds how to listen to music and turn their impressions into words.

He may not have been as adventuresome in his style as his more famous colleagues – and though he was a Soviet composer who often wrote patriotic (what we usually dismiss as “propagandistic”) pieces, he was not inspired by Russian folk music as we often think Russian composers automatically would be – and his music has largely been overlooked in the West. The same year he began work on the “Comedians” music, he completed his opera, Colas Breugnon, based on a novel set in 16th Century Burgundy (not sure how that appealed to the Soviet bureaucrats but then the author, Romaine Rolland, said he had trouble recognizing his main character in Kabalevsky's pro-Soviet adaptation). The barn-burner of an overture is occasionally heard but little else of his music is known in this country.

- Dick Strawser

No comments:

Post a Comment