DSO – Shostakovich and Beethoven

Another outstanding performance Friday night from the DSO.  Where there’s Beethoven, how could it be anything other than great, am I right?  I’m only now getting to blog about it because of Scarborough on Saturday (I’ll get to that blog post next).

Here’s the program:

Gustavo Gimeno conducts
James Ehnes violin

BEETHOVEN – Egmont Overture
KERNIS – Violin Concerto
SHOSTAKOVICH – Symphony No. 5

Beethoven was already a name to be reckoned with by the time he was commissioned to write the overture and incidental music for the Goethe play Egmont.  He jumped at the chance to do it, too, as in the play he found parallels in the real world that directly affected him, most notably invasions by Napoleon.  The themes of liberation and sacrifice appealed to the maestro.

This one is something of a symphonic poem, years before Franz Liszt would coin the term.  What stands out is the oppressive and heavy bass lines vs. the lone voices of the innocent sounding soprano instruments.  Regardless of how much misery Beethoven experienced, he was forever dreaming of joy and freedom.  That’s a great deal of what resonates for me with his music.  He’s known for the oppressive, moody pieces, but most people don’t seem to listen to how those pieces develop and complete into something hopeful.  The only problem I’ve ever had with the Egmont is that it’s too short, clocking in at around eight minutes depending on performance.  This time around, the problem included the audience.  A family directly behind us had a young girl with claustrophobic issues going through a panic attack, and they did their best to keep her quiet before finally removing her from the situation.  That ate up most of the performance having to listen to all that, and while I don’t want to seem unsympathetic here… this can’t have been an unknown factor for them.  If there’s a question, maybe bring her in early and get acclimated when there’s nobody in the room?  But no.  Worse still, they came back after intermission and the poor girl suffered through 45 minutes of Shostakovich.

Aaron Jay Kernis’ Violin Concerto is a brand new piece.  It was first performed a month ago in Toronto, written for Canadian violinist James Ehnes.  By all accounts, other violinists were distressed at how difficult this piece is, and according to Kernis himself (who spoke to us before the concert about it), Ehnes was the consummate professional who simply saw it as pushing the violin to the next level, a preview of what the next century could bring.

Ehnes performed for us this evening with the DSO, and I see why other violinists were impressed.  It’s incredibly difficult, made even more astounding by how effortless Ehnes seemed to make it.  It’s not that you couldn’t see the struggle, but he approached it not unlike a master swordsman.  Any emotion was put into the music itself rather than interpreted on his face.

I can’t say the piece was for me.  I appreciated it on the technical level, but it’s far too dissonant for my tastes.  I enjoyed the performance for what it was, but I don’t know that this is one I’d be able to listen to regularly.  I may come back to it in a few years as my own ear develops to the newer music ans see how it registers for me then.

Which brings us to the centerpiece of the evening, Shostakovich’s 5th.  Shostakovich’s story always impressed me.  He’s one of those composers who was imminently aware that every piece of music could be his last.  He kept a suitcase packed under his desk and slept away from his wife and kid so that should he be black-bagged in the night (as was common in Stalin’s Soviet Union), they would potentially be left safe.

In a lot of ways, this piece echoes what Beethoven was doing with Egmont, only from inside Stalin’s regime.  There are thematic echoes all through it, with the finale being one of “I will be unrelenting in my desire to pound happiness into the audience.”  I admire the humor.  Would that I could admire the piece beyond the technical level.  As with many pieces of this era and later, the dissonance is too much.  I’ve come to appreciate certain pieces and certain composers over the years, and while I do admire Shostakovich’s work, this isn’t one of my favorites.  That doesn’t detract from the performance, though.  If anything, hearing it live probably helped on a number of levels.

I’m sure, however, it didn’t help the little girl freaking out behind us for the entire piece.  Music has a way of crawling into your being, and the dissonance and angst of this piece surely didn’t help her at all.  I don’t know what her family was thinking at that point, but trying to talk her down the whole time isn’t the answer.  That had to be torture for her.

On the whole, not my favorite concert, but far from a loss.  I always enjoy the performances on some level, and this one was no exception.  Most enlightening when I wasn’t distracted.  In addition to performances that challenged my perceptions and another wonderful work from Beethoven, I got to see a master on the rise.  Our regular conductor, Jaap van Sweden, was out on family matters, so our guest conductor was Gustavo Gimeno.  We were told to remember this name.  This guy is a new hotshot with all the mad skills to achieve stratospheric status.  On the podium, he lived up to the hype and then some.  I’m going to look forward to seeing where his career takes him.


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