Thursday, February 12, 2009

Discovering Shostakovich

Last Saturday found me in a dress rehearsal for a Sunday afternoon performance of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony. A few listeners sat in the rows of seats during the rehearsal, family members of orchestra members, perhaps, or friends wanting to enjoy the music without shelling out the cost of a ticket. Towards the back of the room, two very small faces caught my eye. These young girls looked to be about five years old, and as the woodwinds and brass played their swashbuckling themes in the second movement - a sardonic, maniacal waltz, half humorous and half angry, always incongruous - I found myself riveted by their bright faces.

As I was counting rests, they were discovering the unique harmonies - now dissonant, now consonant for a moment, often surprising and always characteristically Shostakovich - of this great Soviet composer for the first time. Faces upturned, their heads began to bob rhythmically and their expressions burst suddenly into wide grins. Soon they bounced up and down in their seats in pure enjoyment of the music.

Those of us in the orchestra approached the music with a certain understanding of Shostakovich: the government oppression he faced, the angst written into each page of a piece like this great symphony, the irony and satire contained in this comical Allegretto. We cannot play the painfully lyrical melodies without hearing Shostakovich's lament for his mother country, and we cannot play the final pages of exhausting, never-ending A's without hearing Shostakovich's own words in our heads:

"What exultation could there be? I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, 'Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,' and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, 'Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.' What kind of apotheosis is that? You have to be a complete oaf not to hear that."

An oaf - or perhaps a modern-day American five-year-old. These girls approached the piece with fresh minds and fresh ears, with no preconceptions. Unaware of those who decried Shostakovich's 20th-century harmonies, unaware of social and political constructs, they took the music at face value - and they thought it was delightfully fun.

Watching the joy on those little faces, I heard the music afresh, too.

1 comment:

  1. Knowing more about Shostakovich and seeing the musicians made this really fun. I watched the other movements too. What else has BBC Proms done like this? Love you,