The Columbus Symphony’s Russian Soul, November 11 and 12

The Columbus Symphony performs music by Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and Liadov, tonight and tomorrow night at 8 PM in the Ohio Theater. Jean Marie Zeitouni conducts. The Saturday night performance will be broadcast live on Classical 101 and may be heard on the web.

While on tour in late January, 1936, Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) picked up the morning edition of Pravda and turned to its music pages. There, under the headline ‘Chaos and Music” he read the following:

” From the first minute, the listener is shocked by deliberate dissonance, by a confused stream of sound.  Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar…all this is of course, primitive and vulgar. The music quacks, grunts and growls, and suffocates itself …”

The article was unsigned, but thought to be a conglomeration of apparatchiks including Stalin’s henchman Molotov. Imagine Shostakovich, thirty years old, riding the crest of success,  reading these words, “the equivalent of a death sentence.” HE was the subject of the article,  that focused on his new and hugely successful opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

This tale of a wretched young woman who murders her father- in- law was packing the theatres in Moscow and Leningrad. It was noted that Stalin had attended a performance and the devastating attack in Pravda soon followed. Shostakovich was working on a fourth symphony and a volume of string quartets. He would occasionally bow to the authorities with a film score or piece of propaganda. But as of January 29, 1936, his career was about to dissolve along with any chance of making a living, or living at all!

Soviet propaganda, which may have contributed to Shostakovich’s memoir Testimony, would have you believe the composer went crawling back to the authorities. His Symphony No. 5 was called a “corrective”-a return to classical form. In a structural sense, yes, the forms used are similar to Beethoven’s. In tone and sound, no. There are wide interval leaps and dark waltzes. The first two movements abound in brass-the exquisite largo is for strings alone

I find this largo more meditative than sad. The first movement to me is brutal.

I used that adjective on promo copy deliberately. The winds and laugh in movement two, juxtaposed with some jauntiness in the strings-and a crazy waltz. A sinister waltz, with the world askew. A dark waltz.

It turns out that the 1936 chastisement of Shostakovich would be repeated in 1948 and 1958. The composer was barely persona grata when Bernstein brought this d minor symphony and the New York Philharmonic  to Moscow in 1959. Bernstein insisted that Shostakovich appear. The composer came forward to ovations that effectively stopped the persecution. The damage to his health and psyche was done.

If it’s dances on prom night you’re expecting on Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, then yours must have been one weird school.

The Dances is an orchestral suite in three movements written for the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1940. Rachmaninoff had been resident in the States for years. He spent his time touring the continent as a pianist–for money. New compositions fell off drastically after 1920. No doubt the Fabulous Philadelphians made a sweet financial offer. That along with Ormandy’s high-profile in broadcasts and recordings made this a sweet deal.

Rachmaninoff (1875-1943) labels the first movement non allegro. He could have said andante or even largo. Who says non allegro-not fast. Here he wanted urgency rather than speed. The finale here recalls the composer’s first symphony, a disaster at its 1897 premiere.

Rachmaninoff opens the second movement with a brass fanfare worthy of George Raft. There’s a big tune with the luscious strings, interspersed with whispers from clarinet, flute and bassoon. The waltz tempo is constant but the tonality is not-there are rapid shifts to major and minor, contributing to a general creepiness.

The finale recalls Russian liturgical music:  the dies irae from the service for the dead, and Blagosloven yesi Gospodi, Blessed art thou, o Lord, teach me thy statutes, from the composer’s masterful Vespers.

Rachmaninoff never returned to Russia after 1918. He lived in Paris, Switzerland and Beverly Hills. In his last composition he returned to the Russia of his youth, while taking advantage of the powerful Philadelphia Orchestra, its magical strings and its broadcast reach.

P.S. The witch Kikimora will haunt your house if it’s not properly cleaned. Don’t believe me? Then check out these concerts with the Columbus Symphony!

Pre-concert talks in the Ohio Theater 4th floor mezzanine one hour before every performance.