Each time the Fort Wayne Philharmonic performs an evening of premier works, something magical happens. Perhaps it is due to the nervous tension of performing a new, less-familiar piece before an audience. Perhaps it is the thrill of playing music composed by someone who isn't food for worms. Whatever the cause, the concert where the orchestra plays newer works usually ends up being my favorite of the season. I remember quite well one performance of premier works a few years back to which I took a female friend on our first "official" date. The music was new and enchanting but my date more so... she eventually became my wife. Maybe that explains why I feel a little giddy at the anticipation of hearing the Fort Wayne Philharmonic play a new piece.
Dimitri Shostakovich (sounds like it is spelled... for once!) is a Russian composer who was born in 1906 in St. Petersburg into a musical family (aren't they all!). Dimitri spent nearly his entire life in Russia and it is said that his compositions are tied closely to the communist ideology, that being classical in formal design, lucid in melody, optimistic in philosophical connotations, and you had to stand in long lines to get to listen to it. Unlike many other Russian artists, Shostakovich adapted well to the rigid lifestyle behind the Iron Curtain, with most of his works being accepted by the government. Critics say that Dimitri was a complex character (ever known an artist who wasn't, or at least didn't consider themselves to be?) who was fiercely critical of his own work, destroying many of his earlier works (a homage to Brahms, no doubt). Some of these early works were considered by the government to be offensive and incompatible with the established Russian cultural traditions. Still he kept on truckin' and eventually gained a great deal of respectability and popularity. During his career, he wrote for films and theater productions. He even wrote music for a ballet that tells the heart-warming story of a Russian football team and their visit to Europe. Sounds like a Disney movie to me! Shostakovich must have enjoyed writing this ballet because he was a rabid sports fan, especially football, and had been known to travel hundreds of miles just to see a game (I hear his favorite team was the Kremlin Gremlins... the Gremlins from the Kremlin).
The music of Shostakovich is very personal and intense. Listening to more than two consecutive Shostakovish string quartets has been known to cause grown men to blubber like a child whose older brother has just fed his favorite Barney doll into dad's new paper shredder. In a completely unrelated note, I would like to point out how closely Dimitri looks like the main character in "Eraserhead". Now that I think about it, watching "Eraserhead" more than once has the same effect as listening to multiple Shostakovich quartets... I think there's a Masters thesis in there somewhere. Shosta wrote the Violin Concerto (Opus 99, for those who were curious) in 1948 when he was at the height of ten years of prodigious writing. He was also in good with the Soviet authorities and held an official music-related political office. However, the Kremlin is a fickle bunch and a few months after completing this work, Dimitri was ousted out of office and officially ostricized (I'm nothing if not alliterative). Realizing that the current political climate and his recent dismissal would make acceptance of this new and creative work difficult, this piece was shelved until 1955. It is probably a good thing he did so because this piece is a wild one! The violin is almost a living, breathing character that can be at times gentle and soothing and quickly manic-depressive over into ranting, brutal shouts and dark mutterings. Much of this piece is based on unusual Russian folk melodies and it is said that Shostakovich owes much to Bartók for this, though I'm not sure Dimitri would have liked to hear this. At one time, Bartók publicly mocked the music of Shostakovich in his "Concerto for Orchestra", but you'll have to wait to hear that story if the Philharmonic ever does the Bartók piece (insert blatant begging and pleading here). The first movement starts off low with a moody violin line joined by the cellos and basses. The music slowly rises to an ethereal, spooky crescendo, preparing the audience for what is to come. The second movement is a manic jig by the flute and bassoon (now there's a word not used enough in daily speech!). The violin rudely interrupts with a coarse, mischievous dance in a different meter and the two rhythms battle it out with the piece growing in intensity toward a dizzying and hectic climax. For my money, this is the best movement of the piece! After what just came before, the third movement is less than memorable: slow, sad and quiet. Fortunately, it isn't very long. The final movement begins with the xylophone and flute playing the melody until once again the capricious violin comes storming in, taking over and leading the orchestra in a full-out race to the finish!
Just a little bit more on Shostakovich
One of the pieces to be premiered on this evening is "The Bells" by Rachmaninoff (or Rachmaninov, his evil twin), based on the poem "The Bells" by Edgar Allen Poe. The philharmonic played a Rachmaninoff piece already this season and will be playing yet another one next performance, so I won't talk about the fellow this time around. However, I must tell you a brief bit about the Poe poem. A mere 303 words long, 42 of them are the word "bells" (13.86% for the actuarial-minded). A sample line: "From the swinging and the ringing of the molten golden bells/Of the bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells/Of the rhyming and the chiming of the bells". I wish I were making this up. Still MORE on Rachmaninov!
Saving the best for last (in my opinion and since I'm the one writing...) are two pieces by Rodin Shchedrin (perhaps I need a refresher "Fun With Phonics" course because I have no idea how to pronounce his name) who was born in Moscow in 1932 and, as far as I can tell, is still alive. Where Shostakovich wrote music that conformed to the communist ideology, Rodin did not. During the early 70's, Shchedrin built up a reputation as politically independant, creating daring works that didn't always fit well with the doctrines of the state. It is difficult for those who grew up in the free West to appreciate the trials that creative artists like Shchedrin had to go through, growing up in a time where radio signals from the west that carried new (and potentially dangerous) music was jammed. Musical students were strictly forbidden from listening to the music of Stravinsky, Bartók, and others. The censorship went so far that for one to even look at the musical scores of one of these composers, it was necessary to get special permission from the conservatory dean, the rector, the relevant teacher, and to have an official stamp (mmmmm... official stamp). Even with that, the student was given a strictly limited amount of time to look at the scores under surveilance in the reading room of the conservatory library. Yet despite such odds (or perhaps because of them), Shchedrin has been able to create inventive works of musical fantasy. The Shchedrin piece played this weeked is "Naughty Limericks: A Concerto for Orchestra", a nine minute collection of mischievous melodies set against a jazzy bass line, combined with brass and percussion parts that dash and dart in different directions from beginning to end. As has been heard in the past, a violin concerto is a piece where the violin gets to let loose and sizzle while the rest of the orchestra backs it up. In a concerto for orchestra, ALL the instruments get to cut loose and show off! Which, of course, makes this the most exciting piece of the evening, chock full o' pyrotechnic fireworks that would make the best rock guitarist hang his head in shame. If you have been intrigued by the world of classical music and yet been put off by the stuffiness of Hayden and his ilk, this is the one show of the season that I cannot recommend enough!
Copyright 1998 Jason Hoffman