March 11, 2013

The Charlotte Symphony decodes a Soviet message

Performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony will bring a hidden world into view.

You can examine a hundred photos of Dmitri Shostakovich and never find him laughing.

Late in life he managed a few weary smiles, when his government was no longer likely to exile or jail him. But pictures taken in his prime, around World War II, show wary eyes and lips set tight. This was a man who spoke through his music, frequently in code.

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra will break one of those codes Friday and Saturday, when it plays Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. (Adele Anthony, winner of the 1996 Carl Nielsen International Violin Competition, will replace the injured Augustin Dumay in Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto.)

The symphony defies stereotypes about the composer. The uninitiated often think of his music as cold, humorless, strident and difficult to follow. This symphony is passionate, occasionally funny, direct and easy to understand – unless you were Josef Stalin.

Stalin had walked out midway through Shostakovich’s opera, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” disgusted by the immorality of the characters and the lack of a message reaffirming Soviet values.

Sure enough, a 1936 article in Pravda titled “Muddle Instead of Music” called the opera “coarse, primitive and vulgar.” Critics who had praised “Lady Macbeth” backed up and contradicted themselves. Commissions dropped off.

Shostakovich, afraid to ire the Soviet authorities, suppressed his Fourth Symphony. (It finally appeared in 1961.) Instead, he produced his Fifth, which ends with a finale that supposedly celebrated Soviet triumphs. He called this “an artist’s creative response to just criticism.”

But was it? Christopher Warren-Green says not, and the CSO’s music director should know: One of his earliest mentors, conductor Kurt Sanderling, attended the 1937 premiere as a student.

“He was terrified when he heard this music,” says Warren-Green. “He thought, ‘Any moment, the doors will open, and the secret police will come in.’

“There’s a quote from Shostakovich in my score: ‘The rejoicing is forced, created under threat. … 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. …’ ”

The whole piece, seen with dissident eyes, takes on a new gloss. A snatch of melody in the second movement comes from a song boys sang about “Comrade Stalin,” now a subtle burlesque. Part of the first movement echoes a song Shostakovich set years earlier to the Pushkin poem “Rebirth:”

“An artist-barbarian with his lazy brush/ Blackens the painting of a genius/ And senselessly, he covers it with/ His own illegitimate drawing.

“But with the passing years, the alien colors/ Fall off like threadbare scales;/ The creation of the genius emerges/ Before us in its former beauty.”

The barbarian? Stalin. The genius? Shostakovich, waiting decades to be understood.

This concert lies near Warren-Green’s heart; because he admires Shostakovich and will revisit a symphony he has loved for a long time.

The less familiar piece will be a tonic for the orchestra: “It’s not technically wildly difficult, but you need an orchestra that can play unbelievably quietly, and ours can. You need that kind of peace you get only when there’s real stillness.”

And it’ll be fresh to the audience, which seldom hears the top symphonist of the last century. You don’t need to know hidden meanings to enjoy the music, but it’s more satisfying if you do. So here’s a last clue:

“The ending should really strike terror into us, with that pounding in the strings: DEE-DEE-DAH-DAH. Sanderling told me that’s Shostakovich saying, ‘ME-ME-ME-ME.’ He still gets in there the idea that he has won.”

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