Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Of music, history, and music history

A violinist plays for Russian troops during WWII.

There's an inherent problem in assessing performance when experiencing works of genius for the first time - otherwise, I'd be doing handsprings over the recent BSO performances of Shostakovich's Second Cello Concerto and Bruckner's Ninth under the baton of Marek Janowski. Local reaction to the concerts was somewhat muted, however, and this was my first exposure to either work live - so, contrary to my reputation, I'll be a little hesitant in my assessment, and simply say (here goes) that the concert was the most exciting I've seen from the BSO in a very long time. And in some ways whether it was the BSO and Janowski, or Shostakovich and Bruckner, that lit my fire is incidental to a deeper issue: the symphony's stance toward music that is engaged with history.

For as the Globe's Jeremy Eichler pointed out, James Levine has "steered clear" of Shostakovich and Bruckner, even though both are deeply embedded in the global saga of the last century or so. Bruckner, of course, played second fiddle only to Wagner on Hitler's hit list (that's the big guy himself paying his respects to the composer, at left), while Shostakovich served as both Stalin's darling and whipping boy - below he's on the cover of Time during WWII, goading the Russians on with radio addresses and the Leningrad Symphony.

Ever the apologist, Eichler merely comments, "More power to [Levine] for sticking to the works he believes in." I'm more intrigued, however, by what this omission in the maestro's taste might mean. As I've said before, Levine often strikes me as a kind of musical gourmand addicted to the succulence of technical difficulty; he sometimes seems to be picking out modernist challenges like candy from a tray. You can make an Apollonian case for this kind of thing, I suppose, but then when you encounter music that's not merely inwardly-facing but engaged with the world, the former style's brilliance can suddenly seem very hollow. It's hard for me, therefore, to imagine preferring the arcana of Schoenberg or Carter to the gripping sorrow of Shostakovich, and of course the concert world is slowly coming to the same conclusion: the great Russian has become a concert hall staple, and Bruckner is finally emerging from the shadow cast by you-know-who's admiration.

But while both may be great, Bruckner (left) is by far the weirder. Immense, yet truncated (the composer never finished its fourth movement), the Ninth Symphony pushes chromaticism way past its Wagnerian sources, and into uncharted harmonic space, before climaxing in one of the most famously dissonant "crashes" in the repertoire. Occasionally the development of one musical idea suddenly "stops," the symphony observes a moment of silence, and then resumes with an entirely new theme. Add to this the fact that the scherzo is slower than the trio, and that we never get back to our "home key," and you have a very strange musical beast indeed - yet one that is almost insistently compelling, and lit by sudden flashes of nearly ecstatic enlightenment. It's easy to see how the orgiast in Hitler would have responded to the pounding bacchanal in Bruckner, but somehow I managed to appreciate the composer's half-mad glory without leaping into a goose-step. And while the Globe faulted conductor Janowski for not "welding" the piece into a "structurally cohesive whole," to my mind the jagged architecture of the performance was instead an interpretation, a decision, not a failing. At any rate, if it was a mess, it was a thrilling one.

By way of contrast, the Shostakovich (the composer at left, at about the time of the Second Concerto), was all controlled melancholia - but with a sardonic, disorderly edge. Cellist Truls Mørk ably essayed the central melodic lines, but it was generally the orchestral accompaniment that proved most haunting. Here Shostakovich draws from folk song - he even includes a vulgar little ditty called "Come buy my pretzels" - but gives the material an almost savagely ironic spin. Heedlessly happy, and imbued with a lightly cruel energy, the tunes keep returning, even after repeated sighs from the cello, which is itself occasionally silenced by a sudden thwack from the timpani. It's hard to fight the impression that this amounts to a harrowing vision of a Russia gone mad, especially when Shostakovich recapitulates his themes with startling ferocity - in the final conflagration, the pretzel song has become overpowering, and dances this time to the crack of a whip. The concerto ends with a truly eerie effect: quietly, as if at a great distance, the percussion defiantly taps out its little tune - unstoppable, for better or worse.

In many hands all this would have been a meaningless sequence of exquisite effects - but somehow guest conductor Janowski imbued them with what amounted to metaphor. But what is this alchemy, precisely - how were Shostakovich and Janowski able to encapsulate a social comment (much less a whole critique) within a sound? Such effects suggest a sensibility that goes beyond the musical, and encompasses at least the literary and historical - and thus may almost by definition elude James Levine (hence, perhaps, his avoidance of these composers?). But something tells me the music of Shostakovich, hewn as it is from some of the darkest experiences of the twentieth century, will last much longer than the intellectual noodlings of the L.A.-era Schoenberg. If only the BSO had a conductor who could embrace it.


  1. Excellent post, Tom. I'd like to plug a few musicians' blogs out there that address a number of these questions, whether it's about music history or composers' relations with their environment. To my mind, the best writer-composers blogging today (& you can access their sites by google-ing their names) are Daniel Wolf, Kyle Gann (who also used to write for the Village Voice), and Dennis Bathory-Kitsz, whose sense of humor's been a saving grace for many of us fellow composers. One last note: Alex Ross' interview about his new book "The Rest is Noise" is now up on NPR's "On Point" audio archives, and it's worth a listen.
    robert b.

  2. Thanks, Robert. The more I think about it, the more shocking it is that Eichler never went into Shostakovich's troubled history in his homeland; instead, he treated the music as denatured of its source - its "profundity" and "irony" were shorn of their actual context, and so could be treated as abstract pleasures. To be blunt, this attitude is just plain weird; but it's rather of a piece with the millennial delusion that history has "ended," isn't it -as if all we have to do now is bask in a happy haze of productivity and globalization, while Jimmy Levine peels us grapes.

  3. Tom, it's much more bizarre than you know. The firestorm about the mostly-discredited Shostakovich 'autobiography' "Testimony" (the Shostakovich Listserv's index has scads about this) has lasted for decades --and 'firestorm' isn't overstating it. Eichler's pussyfooting about Shostakovich is understandable, if not excusable. I may have a few minor details wrong, but here's what I understand to be the case:

    One of the problems centers on the different kinds of critics criticizing the Shostakovich legacy, so it's gotten VERY personal.

    Take, for example, Richard Taruskin, who just completed a monumental tome on the history of music for Oxford. To Taruskin's critics, his preening, self-serving career and vitriolic (and I mean, truly rabid) attacks on other critics makes his disagreeing with the idea that Shostakovich was *not* tortured by his superiors understandable to Taruskin's detractors: To them, Taruskin is himself so close to Tikhon Khrennikov in character (the man who enabled Shostakovich, Prokoviev, and the placid composer Myaskovsky to be censured, both academically and financially, by Stalin), that therefore Taruskin's dismissing Shostakovich's suffering is itself easily dismissed. (Needless to say, John Simon is also in Taruskin's camp. As you can probably tell, I'm not.)

    The problem with all of this is that Taruskin's a pretty good writer; and his two-volume book on Stravinsky is one of the best in the English language. The whole fracas over all of this wasn't helped by the critical mauling Iain MacDonald, one of Taruskin's readiest targets, got in his oddball but fascinating book, "The New Shostakovich." Partly due to the book's constant belittlement by academic scholars (like Laurel Fay, influential but a mediocre writer), MacDonald committed suicide a couple of years ago.

  4. Thanks, Robert, for a dismaying peek into the academic sandbox. Somehow I think Shostakovich will survive all this.

  5. You probably know the musician's most trenchant response to a critic. Max Reger, once derided (unfairly) as "the worst composer in the world," sent the following response: "Dear sir: I am in the smallest room in the house. Your review is before me. In a moment it will be behind me."

    Oh, well. Next.