New England Conservatory’s yearlong festival Music: Truth to Power continues April 23, when the NEC Philharmonia and Hugh Wolff, the Stanford and Norma Jean Calderwood Director of Orchestras, return to Symphony Hall for the first time since 2010. Both Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and Shostakovich’s infrequently heard Symphony No. 11 (The Year 1905), which commemorated the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, clearly fit the season’s theme. Less about lofty messages but with special significance for Symphony Hall is the Violin Concerto No. 1 of Sergei Prokofiev, composed in 1917 and given its American premiere in 1925 by the Boston Symphony. Concertmaster Richard Burgin was soloist with Serge Koussevitzky conducting. The new violinist will be Xiang Yu (Angelo), candidate for the NEC Artist Diploma, who has been frequently praised in these pages: “By the sheer quality and force of his sound and ideas Angelo emerged as an artist with a distinct voice and an extraordinary ability to engage.”
Presented in association with the Celebrity Series of Boston, the performance takes place at 8 pm and is being offered as a special bonus to Celebrity Series subscribers. The public is invited to attend as well. Tickets are $20/$15, $10 for students and seniors; WGBH members 2 for 1.
The NEC Philharmonia under Hugh Wolff has delivered many local concerts that rival more-famous orchestras. The chance to hear them with the extra burnish provided by Symphony Hall is another excellent motivator for attending. BMInt’s review of their previous Symphony Hall outing here.
As NEC publicist and former Boston Herald music critic Ellen Pfeifer explains, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 received its first performance in Moscow in 1957, four years after Stalin’s death, at a time when the composer, who might have been expected to feel liberation from the artistic repression of the regime, was rather depressed and deflated. When the Eleventh had its debut, it was met with mixed reactions. There were disappointment among those who heard socialist-realist banality, dawning understanding from subtler listeners, and high praise from musical officialdom—so much praise, in fact, that Shostakovich was awarded the Lenin Prize for 1958 and completely rehabilitated from his previous disfavor. Among the factors cited by all sides was the extensive quotation of familiar revolutionary songs and reminiscences of classic Russian scores like Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Shostakovich himself reportedly said that his work orchestrating Mussorgsky “contributed greatly to my Seventh and Eighth Symphonies and then was recalled in the Eleventh, and there was a time when I considered the Eleventh my most Mussorgskian composition.”
In praise of the song quotations, a Union of Soviet Composers critic commented that “Thanks to extensive use of the revolutionary song heritage, the language of the symphony proved to be simpler and more accessible than in previous works of the composer while remaining at the same time deeply individual.” On the other hand, Alexander Solzhenitsyn writing in The Gulag Archipelago, “failed to discern any redeeming contemporary message behind the Eleventh Symphony,” according to Shostakovich biographer Laurel Fay. Yet the great poet Anna Akhmatova, who heard the premiere, was deeply moved by it and the Russian songs it contained. She likened those songs to “white birds flying against a terrible black sky,” and she told a friend, “His revolutionary songs sometimes spring up close by, sometimes float by far away in the sky … they flare up like lightning…. That’s the way it was in 1905. I remember.”
Then there is the question of whether the symphony has a subtext like certain other Shostakovich works. Richard Taruskin and Solomon Volkov opine that “the violent music in the second movement is associated not with events of Bloody Sunday 1905 but with the more contemporaneous events in Hungary where Soviet troops had put down a rebellion.” And as the musicologist Lev Lebedinsky put it, “What we heard in this music was not the police firing on the crowd in front of the Winter Palace in 1905 but the Soviet tanks roaring through the streets of Budapest. This was so clear ‘to those who had ears to listen,’ that [Shostakovich’s] son, with whom he wasn’t in the habit of sharing his deepest thoughts, whispered during the dress rehearsal, ‘Papa, what if they hang you for this?’”
Less inclined to be so prescriptive, Fay allows that “the evils of tyranny and oppression with which the symphony deals are a pervasive theme in Shostakovich’s music, one he well knew is timeless and universal.”
So what is the Symphony No. 11? The composer’s most Russian/ Mussorgskian work? A specimen of cinematic agitprop? Commentary on the crushed Hungarian uprising? A deeply reflective “Requiem for a Generation?” The work of a washed-up genius who, after 20 years of suppression, succumbed to the political juggernaut? Or a work beautifully organized that speaks tragically to the inevitable recurrence of despotism? Hugh Wolff, who has a special affinity for the Shostakovich symphonies and led the Tenth at the last Symphony Hall concert, feels a strong commitment to the Eleventh. Listeners will have a fine opportunity to decide for themselves about the piece after the April 23 Philharmonia performance.