Ah, the magic of opening night at the philharmonic! The sloosh of the spit valves, money changing hands as bets are made on which second chair violinists finally have made the big leagues, the curious anticipation to see if the violas will finally get the recognition due them, the sad disappointment that the committee has turned down the request for a permanent accordionist… again. While you can normally get by dressed fairly casually at a performance, this is not the time to sport your new OzzFest T-shirt. Yes, the ladies of luxury have been out all summer, shopping in Chicago, New York, and Targe', trying to find that perfect gown for the opening night at the philharmonic. And everyone, I repeat, everyone will be wearing socks (except Roger the usher… it's a chore just convincing him to wear pants)!

When Maestro Tchivzhel throws out the opening note, it will be from Marche Salve by Tchaikovsky, one of his favorite composers. Also to be played is Tchaikovsky's fifth symphony, a glorious example of Tchaikovsky at his most manic! If you'll remember from last season, Tchaikovsky is the Russian fellow who enrolled in law school but dropped out to pursue music, creating such great works as the Swan Lake and Nutcracker ballets as well as six (maybe seven) very influential symphonies (and if you thought these were great, you should read his legal brief on Olaf's commune… pure poetry). If you are at all familiar with any of the fore-mentioned pieces, you are aware that his music is lush, flowing, deeply moving, and instantly likeable. His fifth symphony is no exception. Melodies of depression and hopelessness are contrasted with heart-wrenchingly beautiful and highly emotional climaxes. Ironically, the ending to this tragically morose piece exudes grandeur and a sense of ultimate triumph over the inescapable tendrils of Destiny. Don't leave the hankie at home!

Sandwiched between the two Tchaikovsky pieces (eewwww) is Dmitri Shostakovich's ninth symphony. Born to a pair of agile bipeds in the charming Russian villa of St. Petersburg, Shostakovich spent his entire life immersed in the Soviet system, though he occasionally came up for air. Artists like Shostakovich were employees of the State and it was expected that their art would be created in the service of Socialism, written, as per the Politburo's dictum, "towards all that is heroic, bright, and beautiful" with "all aspects of music subordinated to the melody and such melody should be clear and singable". Indeed, this describes the music of Shostakovich, if you throw in the occasional progressive edge, encoded messages, and sarcastic remarks veiled just enough to get past "The Nose" of Stalin. Because he did not toe the party line completely (the pinky toe on his left foot didn't quite reach), Dmitri was often officially censured, later to be redeemed and restored to Party favor, only to be censured again. At the height of the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s, he even kept a small suitcase packed and by the door in case the police arrived to take him away (packed with cotton swabs, a hamster wheel, a magical garden gnome named Spleen, a Ruth Buzzi record, a one pound container of lard and underpants). In spite of such pressure to conform, Shostakovich was amazingly able to create music that pleased the Party without abandoning artistic merit. A good deal of this is due to his ability to craft the kind of singable melodies his Party loved.

The ninth symphony, however, did not please The Party. Shostakovich's seventh and eighth symphonies were enormous, powerful, Mahleresque works that took their cues from the might of the Soviet system in the Second World War. Stalin expected more of the same but instead he got five short, cynical movements that last less than thirty minutes. There is no chorus shouting the glory of Soviet rule, there are no soloists, no apotheosis of Stalin, no cleverly rhymed limericks about girls from Nantucket. It was just music, which Stalin didn't understand very well. Dmitri expected this, stating that this symphony "is a merry little piece. Musicians will love playing it and critics will delight in blasting it." So just like that lovable imp Jerry Mathers, Shostakovich was in trouble again.

Not that there is anything wrong with this symphony. In fact, it fits quite well the requirements stated above. It is bright and cheery (with a high-larious combination of piccolo and trombone in the second theme), ending with a military-style fanfare that could soften the heart of the coldest Siberian prisoner. Fortunately, Stalin eventually died and was sealed in a giant zip-lock bag. The iron grip concerning music was relaxed, allowing Dmitri and other composers greater freedom and even allowing for the public performance of these pieces that had previously been banned, a good thing for everyone except Roger, who now has to wear pants.

Copyright 1999 Jason Hoffman

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