Tag Archive: Dmitri Shostakovich

Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill, North Carolina – Two Orchestras, East and West

Tonu Kalam

I had the pleasure of visiting Chapel Hill at a festive, eclectic time early last December. It was exam week at the University of North Carolina. This won’t quite be a review as a result—more a series of hopeful impressions from that impressive musical crucible. Old friend Tonu Kalam, who leads the UNC Orchestra, and new wife Karyn Ostrom, who plays violin in it, pulled out all the stops for my visit. In the course of several days, I took in Kalam’s orchestra at rehearsal and concert, witnessed a conducting class, attended a student chamber recital and heard the China Philharmonic perform a new concerto written for UNC pianist Clara Yang. I came away impressed, as I always do at UNC, rejuvenated by the high level of musical interest and talent at play on campus.

The Year that Was: Boston Classical Music in 2015

Andris Nelsons

The major news from Boston was the ascendancy of Andris Nelsons, firming up his place as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which included a quickly agreed upon three-year extension of his contract into the 2020-2021 season. This announcement was soon followed by the less happy surprise for Bostonians of Nelsons also accepting an offer from the eminent Leipzig Gewandhaus, the orchestra whose music director was once no less than Felix Mendelssohn, to take on that very position, beginning in the 2017-2018 season, thus dividing the loyalties of the young maestro (who just turned 37), though evidently with the possibility of collaborations between the two orchestras. (Remember when some people were complaining about James Levine dividing his time between the BSO and the Metropolitan Opera?)

The Winter of Our Discontent: Classical Music in Boston 

Andris Nelsons

As everyone in New England knows, this winter was one long slog. But significant musical events actually got to take place, and some of these have been exceptional. But many have been frustrating and disappointing.

Dvořák and Shostakovich with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony, Jian Wang, Cello, Plus Some Extra Cellomania

Is Dvořak, to paraphrase Dr. Leonard McCoy, really that beautiful? Really so much more beautiful than other music you’ve heard? Or is it just that it acts beautiful? If it comes down to the performance to go more than skin deep, the musicians must play very convincingly indeed. Beauty in music has proven to be diverse. For a sound to be music rather than mere sounds, however pleasing, the it needs the broadest possible aesthetic idea of beauty. An ugly sound, it has been pointed out, can be “beautiful” if used so fittingly by a composer that nothing but that sound could be desired at that point in the music. For human beings, this has included the rasping shawms and the regals, and the augmented fourth of the middle ages and renaissance, the harsh use of the usual orchestral brass by Mahler, and all the freely used ugly sounds and outbursts in 20th century music and its terrible dissonances. I would draw the line at physically painful sounds, either through loudness or shrillness or both, as ugly in a destructive way, and so incapable of beauty, even betraying the faith of the listener who trustingly opens their ears to the music, though some do seem to find pleasure in the ginormous 19th century organs played at full volume with all the stops out. Free expression in a musician or a composer can be beautiful in itself, of course, though when that expression becomes gratuitous or self-indulgent, or sentimental (which can betray a certain narrow emotional rigidity) or arbitrary (which can betray a self-imposed or self-persuaded intellectual rigidity) it can become ugly. Music in a straight jacket can be ugly too. A masterful fugue in transcending any thought of a dichotomy between these two extremes can be most beautiful of all.

Prom 54: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Frederick Delius and Shostakovich

Resistance movements. It didn’t take long for everyone to realize that they had a musical star in Vasily Petrenko, the boyish thirtysomething conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. He debuted with them in 2004 at the age of 28 with brilliant promise. No one spoke of promise after a concert or two; they were already floored. One of a star’s perks is a roaring welcome at the Proms. You’d have thought at the end of their concert two nights ago that the orchestra had just played Crown Imperial rather than the angst-ridden Shostakovich Tenth.

British Liaisons: The Australian Ballet Flowers From Its British Roots

Australia and Britain have particularly close artistic ties, cooperatively sharing artists, as is well documented in the British Liaisons program, along with fascinating pictures. For example, the Irish Briton Ninette de Valois, who helped found the Royal Ballet, sent expertise to many countries in the form of dancers and teachers from her company, Peggy van Praagh in Australia’s case, and she also traveled much herself, for example to Turkey and the Yugoslav nations to help set up their national ballet companies. De Valois also gave Robert Helpmann opportunities to use his acting and dancing talent after he came to England from Australia as a young man. Not mentioned in the program, de Valois in 1928 commissioned a score from the avant garde Australian composer Elsie Hamilton for her ballet The Scorpions of Ysit, though the original failed at the time, it would be interesting to restore it. A good 21st Century example is Peter Wright and John MacFarlane’s (an Englishman and Scot respectively) Nutcracker, which is also now in the Australian Ballet’s repetoire. In any case, the three ballets in this program, all from British choreographers, give a much more articulate description of modern artistic collaboration with Britain and show off its diversity. In addition, this program offers an opportunity to hear well played 20th century music that is not often heard.

Pavel Haas Quartet at Wigmore Hall: Haydn and Shostakovich

Day for night. The young Pavel Haas Quartet from the Czech Republic, has been winning prizes and rave notices for eight years now, the flicker of an eye in the usual lifespan of renowned string quartets. We are in the midst of a glut of rising young ensembles of this kind, but the Pavel Haas sets itself aside. It doesn’t come on stage dressed in matching black Dolce & Gabbana or play with the impersonal precision of a machinist shop. Their style is a throwback to the forceful, romanticized sound of Russian groups like the Beethoven, Borodin, and Shostakovich Quartets. Like the last, they took their name from a modern composer. Pavel Haas (1899-1944) died at Auschwitz and has a noted place in Czech music. The group has recorded his three string quartets, which were the impetus for choosing Haas’s name, we are told, rather than as a statement about the Holocaust.

Leila Josefowicz plays Shostakovich and Schubert at Wigmore Hall

The hollow man. Shostakovich was demoralized and spent after suffering a serious heart attack in 1964. The politically craven Symphony No. 12 and the politically courageous Symphony No. 13 had dangled him between the two poles of his nature. A visit from Benjamin Britten revived his spirits in 1967, and two years later Shostakovich produced one of his late masterpieces, the Violin Sonata, a severe work based, after Britten’s instigation, on the twelve-tone system. But as with Agon, which is twelve-tone but sounds every note like Stravinsky, the sonata’s gray, spare lament could have come from nobody but Shostakovich. It exhausts an audience, even the redoubtable Wiggies (that is, the faithful patrons of Wigmore Hall) but when a committed soloist plays it, a soul beats loudly inside the enervating despair.

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