The Boston Philharmonic, conducted by Benjamin Zander, gave us memorable Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich at Sanders Theatre on November 15th. George Li, a 17-year-old pianist attending the Walnut Hill School for the Arts while studying privately at the New England Conservatory, opened with a strikingly mature interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Opus 18.
The 2nd Piano Concerto is well-crafted like comfortable pair of old shoes from which one could never part, and may be the most popular piano concerto of all. For me it is a traditional family favorite; hearing a live performance at this time of year brought back nostalgic memories of listening to a recording of it while curled up on my grandparents’ sofa, with the aroma of wood smoke from a crackling fireplace permeating the house after our Thanksgiving dinner.
The romance of the piece lies not just in its popular melodies but in its yearning dissonance that tugs at the listener, and also in the signature richness of Rachmaninoff’s lower register voicing, which one tends to associate with his legendary, large hands. That is why it was so astonishing to hear such depth, power and range in a performance by such a young pianist.
With the very first opening notes, Li gently commenced with graceful sensitivity that formed into a softly playful lyricism, but containing all the complexity of expression needed to develop later into a powerful fortissimo of fully voiced richness and suspending dissonance. Li’s interpretation of the adagio was memorably distinctive for its Mozartean simplicity in the beginning, in contrast to its theme returning more passionately each time. His supreme delicacy brought forth in the music a very unique and latent element of wonder, his youth belying a musical maturity equal to his effortlessly flowing sense of ensemble. According to Zander’s opening discussion, Li’s “secret” is that he is not a “lonely pianist” but an experienced ensemble player who enjoys collaborating with other musicians. A deeply sensitive listener, his ensemble experience certainly shined through in the exquisite rhythmic clarity of his entire performance.
Li’s triumphant finish was followed by a standing ovation and two Rachmaninoff encores (Daisies, and Prelude in G Minor), expressing in solo the full range of Rachmaninoff’s art
Under Zander’s direction the orchestra of students, amateurs and professionals mastered Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47. What is less-known about the familiar piece is the controversy regarding accuracy of tempo in the final movement, and how historical information available since 1979 informs current performance practice. Zander’s introductory talk provided back story of the motivation behind this symphony. At the peak of Shostakovich’s career, when he had fully come into his celebrity, he received a scathing review that left him feeling a doomed man unable to sleep at night. The political gravity of this particular critic’s opinion was the source of Shostakovich’s ill-ease. The review was authored by Joseph Stalin. In 1936, Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mzensk (Katerina Ismailova), which had been circulating for two years prior, was criticized by Stalin as “the negation of the very principles of opera”, and a “thoroughly non-political concoction”.
From 1936 onward, Shostakovich composed in a cloud of dread. He retracted his 4th Symphony after the first rehearsal, and then proceeded to write the 5th not as a tone poem, but in traditional form, with the words, “a Soviet artist’s reply to criticism” demonstrating “the re-education of the human mind… under the influence of new ideals”. But to a novice hearing this symphony for the first time, knowing nothing of this particular composer’s place in Soviet history, these words are confusing. For what stands out, in movement after movement, is despair and yearning that is not romantic, but gray and nightmarish, ending in a forced sense of triumph that seems out of step with the overall tone. Boston Philharmonic’s performance captured these emotions in a soulful way. And indeed, there is also biographical evidence that Shostakovich believed the audience would grasp his cynicism, while the officials would hear what they wanted to hear. And he was right. But he could not have anticipated his cageyness being misunderstood by conductors. In Michael Steinberg’s program notes, he quotes Shostakovich from Testimony:
Awaiting execution is a theme that has tormented me all my life. Many pages of my music are devoted to it. Sometimes I wanted to explain that fact to the performers, I thought they would have a greater understanding of the work’s meaning. But then I thought better of it. You can’t explain anything to a bad performer, and a talented person should sense it himself…
I discovered to my astonishment that the man [Yevgeny Mravinsky] who considers himself its greatest interpreter does not understand my music. He says I wanted to write exultant finales for my Fifth and Seventh symphonies but I couldn’t manage it. It never occurred to this man that I never thought about exultant finales, for what exultation could there be? I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in [Mussorgsky’s] ‘Boris Godunov.’ It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,’ and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, “Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’
Apparently, prior to the publication of this passage in 1979, very few did understand, and therefore interpreted his carefully organized tempos as some kind of elaborate misprint, taking unintended liberties instead of searching for the emotional clues those tempi implied. Zander gave a compelling demonstration of one of these more ‘triumphant’ interpretations, while keeping with the composer’s implicit wishes during the performance, allowing the audience the opportunity to draw their own comparison.
George Li and the Boston Philharmonic performed at Jordon Hall last night and will be returning to Sanders Theatre, Harvard University this afternoon, November 18th, 2012 at 3pm for the final performance of this program.