March 15, 2013

Charlotte + Shostakovich = love

You never know why or when people will give their hearts. It happened Friday at Belk Theater in an unlikely manner, as Charlotte Symphony Orchestra patrons found themselves cheering lustily for a justifiably neurotic Russian who’s been dead for 37 years.

Most of them had probably come to hear the Brahms’ Violin Concerto, which was played with vigor, an occasional sense of sweetness and repose and a smallish tone by Adele Anthony. (She substituted at the last minute for Augustin Dumay, who injured his back.) The orchestra had marketed the concert on the allure of the 19th-century master: The tickets read only “Brahms Violin.”

Yet the symphony’s notoriously bronchial audience sat in near-silent fixation as music director Christopher Warren-Green explored every corner of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. (He has said this piece requires an orchestra that can play well quietly, as ours does. It also needs an audience that can listen well quietly.)

Comprehensive program notes efficiently laid out the political history behind the work, detailing Josef Stalin’s abuse – and thus Soviet society’s abuse – and intimidation of the composer, who dubbed this symphony “an artist’s reply to just criticism.” But he coded it with strong critical symbols that passed the understanding of Soviet bureaucrats. Whether you knew its history or not, this wide-ranging reading worked purely as music.

In a way, this Fifth is a trip through compositional history. The second movement is the snarling/smiling scherzo Mahler never wrote, complete with a phrase for horns that could grace a mariachi band. The slow movement looks back to works by Tchaikovsky the composer heard in school and forward to “Fiddler on the Roof.” (A six-note phrase, played twice, turns up verbatim in Tevye’s Sabbath prayer.)

This music thunders through apocalyptic brass and pounding timpani, and it dwindles down to a wistful flute and the sad tinkling of a celeste. Warren-Green conducted some parts tenderly, others fervidly, all of them intensely.

The final movement, sad and goose-bumpy by turns, officially represents Soviet uplift but unofficially embodies Shostakovich’s scream of protest in the stabbing violins. That finale left both players and us drained. For once, no encore followed – or was desired.

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