Friday, July 26, 2013

A Night at the Concert Hall

My beloved and I went to the National Concert Hall to attend a concert. As we arrived we saw that a red carpet had been rolled out. "Oh, you shouldn't have!" I said, before being shoved roughly over to a side entrance. Once inside, rumour revealed that the President would be joining us for what was going to be the last concert of the National Symphony Orchestra's latest season.

In the auditorium there was the usual palaver as the orchestra came onstage - and then a very exciting moment as the President came to sit in his special seat while the orchestra played a mini version of the national anthem. After that it was straight into the real action.

First up it was Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. I was not sure I had ever heard it before, but once it started I remembered it as the opener of that dreadful Hooked on Classics record and was half expecting a primitive drum machine beat to kick in. Thankfully this did not happen. Instead we got Kirill Gerstein giving us great piano. He also did great piano faces, which was just as well as the low angle of our seats meant that the piano obscured much of the rest of the orchestra from our view.

And when they had finished that, Mr Gerstein treated us to an encore of more piano stuff from Rachmaninov. I do not think I have ever seen an encore at the Concert Hall before, so I was excited.

After the interval, the main event was Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5. This work is one of the great come-backs in history. Previous to it, Shosty had written the score for the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, but Stalin had taken a dislike to its dischordant rhythms. Pravda ran an editorial denouncing the work, with the wonderful title of "Muddle Instead of Music" and Shostakovich found himself in big trouble. The 5th Symphony (apparently billed by Shostakovich as "a Soviet artist's response to justified criticism") was his attempt to write music that would find official favour while at the same time remaining true enough to his artistic vision.

I am not particularly familiar with this piece, though I realise now that I have heard it before. It opens with stirring chords sampled to great effect on Morrissey's 'The Teachers Are Afraid of the Pupils' and I think also it was played as a soundtrack to a screening of The Battleship Potemkin some years ago.

With the first two movements of this I did find myself thinking that if this how discordant Shostakovich would go when trying to play nice then maybe Stalin had a point with Lady Macbeth of Mtensk. The music also has that generally stirring quality I associate with Shotakovich's symphonic works and the music of the mid 20th century.

The third movement slows everything down and was apparently considered so sadface when the piece premiered that people wept in their seats while it played - with the music bringing to mind the victims of Stalin's Red Terror, then at its height. The poignant association with the Terror may or may not have been intended by Shostakovich. He certainly was not so stupid as to ever to say to anyone that his intention was to memorialise Stalin's victims, but the association probably helped him in retrospect as the mournfulness of this section allows him to escape accusations of churning out up-tempo kitsch for the regime.

The final movement is all bombastic fanfare and makes for a great end to the piece. Some have said that this is Shostakovich attempting to parody the stock forms of socialist realist music. There is no real way of knowing this and even if there was it is a question that is no longer directly relevant to ourselves. I found myself responding to the piece more directly, as a suitably climactic end to a great evening of music.

The concert was also the last performance of violinist Alan Smale as its leader. He has been a key part of performances by the National Symphony Orchestra for as long as I can remember, so seeing him go does mark the end of an era. I gave him one of my rare standing ovations.


Shostakovich image
Muddle instead of Music

An inuit panda production

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