IN: Reviews

BSO Achieves Timely Triumph


Baiba Skride, Harriet Krijgh, Elsbeth Moser in Gubaidulina Triple concerto. (Winslow Townson photo)

Flush from a second consecutive Grammy, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra presented their latest all-Russian program in their multi-season survey of Shostakovich symphonies. The largest and perhaps most notorious of these works, the Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 60, was paired with the world premiere of the Triple Concerto of Sofia Gubaidulina. Last night, the BSO reached a new high-water mark with its harrowing performance on music from the edge of war.

The concert began with Gubaidulina’s Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Bayan, co-commissioned by the BSO and the North German Radio Philharmonic of Hannover. Swiss bayanist Elsbeth Moser, a longtime Gubaidulina collaborator, inspired the composition and is the work’s dedicatee. She mounted a platform next to the conductor’s podium alongside young Dutch cellist Harriet Krijgh, and Latvian violinist Baiba Skride. The work began with a dense tone cluster on the bayan, making for a rich and strange sound. Double basses joined in, with the lowest end of their register reminding me of nothing quite like humpback whale song. Then Krijgh and Skride took turns playing an overtone series, the rising sets of pitches that derive from the harmonics of the base pitch. This was followed by a series of exchanges between orchestra and soloists, occasionally punctuated by the menacing whirring of gongs and snare drum. The orchestral parts seemed to concentrate either on the very highest notes (piccolo, flutes, triangle) or the very lowest (string basses, contrabassoon, a trio of trombones and two tubas). Skride soared up and played harmonics that reached up into dog-whistle range, and Moser added outbursts of tone clusters moving up and down the bayan’s register. The work reversed the opening material with high orchestra parts, a falling overtone series, then a big roaring finish. It was a work filled with the kind of sonic atmospherics that you’d expect from a veteran film score composer like Gubaidulina, and between the presence of three soloists, women from different countries and different generations, the exploration of unusual instrument combinations and the extremes of orchestral tessitura made for a fascinating probing of music’s margins. The crowd registered warm approval, and rose to its feet when the 85-year-old composer stepped to the front to take a bow. 

Dmitri Shostakovich worked on his Symphony No. 7 as his hometown of Leningrad (once again St. Petersburg) lay under a brutal Nazi siege that killed half of its residents. It became a potent symbol of Russian (and later Allied) defiance of Fascist oppression. However, some accounts suggest that Shostakovich was working on the symphony for a full year before Hitler sent the Wehrmacht into the Soviet Union. In Solomon Volkov’s controversial Testimony, Shostakovich supposedly states that the symphony describes a city that Stalin destroyed and Hitler merely finished off.

The main reason for the colossal scale of the Symphony No. 7 is the massive opening movement, an ambitious Allegretto, which opens with a sonata form-inspired working of two contrasting thematic groups. It begins with a stirring unison string tune accompanied by martial trumpet-and-drum rhythms. The second subject starts with a squeezebox-style accompanying pattern divided between cellos and violas, then the first violins play a forlorn theme, echoed by the wind choir led by the oboe. The piccolo rounds out what should be enough material for a significant movement. But then, a snare drum starts rattling steadily away. A faint, jaunty melody emerges, string instruments played barely audibly, then gets repeated over and over again, picking up thicker orchestration, a bit of canonic counterpoint, and other thematic material, gathering momentum over twelve repetitions and over 10 minutes. As the melody surges in power and force, it begins to lurch and stagger like a drunkard, no longer banal or laughable but dangerous and lethal.

I had heard this symphony a few times before (including the BSO’s last performance in 1995), and this middle section had always struck me as maudlin and melodramatic. But I returned to this piece in the wake of the recent political turmoil, I heard a tune so banal it invites derision. But as the tune gets repeated incessantly and amplifies, it overwhelms everything in its path The symphony was transformed in my ears from a grotesque mash-up of Bolero and the 1812 Overture into musical journalism, a description of how totalitarian regimes come to power, and music that suits our dark times.

The BSO responded to this movement magnificently, playing the opening string theme with passion and urgency, managing the slow burn crescendo of the totalitarian theme with impressive and inexorable dynamic control, and exploring the chaos and devastation left in the wake of the invasion with a frank, dry-eyed bleakness. The opening section offered a number of short but piquant solo segments for BSO piccolo player Cynthia Meyers. The devastation segment offered a lovely solo moment for principal flautist Elizabeth Rowe and a particularly vulnerable, extended solo for principal bassoonist Richard Svoboda. The opening movement pulled back to a hushed pianissimo with exquisitely focused string playing, and a lovely, subtle but menacing return of snare drum and jaunty theme played by principal trumpeter Thomas Rolfs with a mute to make it sound like it came from miles away.

The second movement Moderato  passes for a Minuet/Scherzo form, and leavens the first movement with the work’s one bit of gallows humor. It starts with the irregular rhythm of the violin theme over a slow and steady flow of short, separated notes from the lower strings. Oboist John Ferrillo floated a melancholy solo over this string counterpoint, then handed it off ably to English hornist Robert Sheena. The middle section was louder, cruder, marked by a relentlessly rhythmic xylophone figure, over which principal clarinetist William Hudgins captured Shostakovich’s characteristic sardonic wit. The movement transitions back to the opening material and ends with another stunning, gentle string playout.

The Adagio third movement constitutes a the great lamentation for Leningrad’s many dead, particularly in Leonard Bernstein’s over-the-top Chicago Symphony recording for Deutsche Grammophon. Nelsons and the BSO did not quite reach for Bernstein’s Mahlerian emotional heights, but they beautifully balances the opening chorale figure between winds and horns, and the strings gave out their keening lamentations with impressively unified intonation and phrasing. Flautists Rowe and Clint Foreman dueted hauntingly over clarinet chords, before the chorale and mourning segments came in a hair-raisingly hushed pianissimo. This gave way to another brutal middle section, with syncopated brass reminding me of the theme to the I, Claudius TV series. The opening material returns in a few intriguing alternate orchestrations, including the chorale tune played at the highest end of the lowest wind instruments (bassoons and clarinets) and a lush, gorgeous lament from the violas.

This movement segued directly from its quiet ending to the hushed string figure over pedal point string bass that opens the final movement Allegro non troppo. This material gathered slowly in strength and power, similar to the opening movement but here giving more of a sense of defiantly manning the barricades. Then a dotted rhythm, an almost Handelian musical figure, waxes and wanes in power, mired for a while in seemingly aimless circles before the strings escalate gradually in dynamics and intensity. For the build-up to the conclusion, Nelsons took a tempo slower than those that I’ve heard in other interpretations, generating a sense of a people who are weary, bruised, and battered but continue fighting nonetheless, and made the final triumph feel hard-earned. And the final triumph was resplendent indeed, one of Shostakovich’s biggest and brightest blazes of sonic glory. The BSO played this with ear-splitting brilliance, earning enthusiastic roars from the audience and bringing the crowd rapidly to its feet for a well-deserved and prolonged ovation. All in all, it made for yet another high extraordinary high point in Nelsons’s ongoing exploration of a composer whose music has become unexpectedly timely.

The orchestra repeats this concert on Friday afternoon and Saturday evening before taking it to Carnegie Hall along with the programs of the last two weeks. They return to Boston on Friday, March 10, when conductor Sakari Oramo, pianist Krill Gerstein, and the men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus present Sibelius’s Symphony No. 3 and Busoni’s enormous, 70-minute Piano Concerto in C Major.

James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night. He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


11 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Such an informed review. I learned a lot and will read it again before I attend the Carnegie Hall performance during my business trip to the Big Apple next week.

    Comment by William Devaney — February 24, 2017 at 8:25 pm

  2. Great review, insightful and accurate. I, too, experienced the middle section of the Shostakovitch as expressing the grotesque darkness of impending totalitarianism, crushing individual voices, poetry, beauty — all that we hold dear.

    Comment by Ashley — February 25, 2017 at 7:59 am

  3. I’m surprised that the three reviews I’ve read, plus the program notes, have all discussed the “invasion theme” in the Leningrad Symphony, but none has made mention of its origin as Count Danilo’s jaunty entrance song “Da geh’ ich zu Maxim” from Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe. Nor, for that matter, of Bartók’s savage parody of the Shostakovich theme in his Concerto for Orchestra.

    Comment by David Derow — February 25, 2017 at 12:48 pm

  4. thought about going to this one, but …

    happen to read a comment online, perhaps somewhat relevant

    I heard Bernstein and The New York Philharmonic many times in New York and several times on tour. On one occasion, this was in San Francisco, the first part of the concert was a Robert Schumann Symphony. The performance was spectacular; fresh, alive, bright, bursting with all manner of marvelous poetic music-making. The audience applauded in a mild manner for what seemed a mostly obligatory period of time, and then quickly became quiet. They clearly had no idea what had just been offered up. The second half of the program was the Shostakovitch 5th Symphony. Bernstein milked it for all it was worth in the most narcissistic shameless fashion, and suddenly the previously polite audience were transformed into Bobby-soxers at a Sinatra concert. The whole place went wild at the conclusion. After the concert the Shostakovitch was all the overwhelmingly majority of the audience could talk about. The music, as Bernstein led it, was mawkish, the worst sort of atrocious dross. But the public went nuts.

    This taught me two very important lessons. First, far too many concertgoers approach music based on some simplistic ideology. The San Francisco audience was dominated by PBS viewers, and for them Shostakovitch was the main event. Only a handful of musicians I spoke with after the concert were awed by the real music-making of the evening’s concert, the Schumann. Second, the great mass of the public not only cannot distinguish between grandiloquence and true grandeur, it invariably much prefers the former. Louder trumps quieter, vulgar tops subtle. The funny thing is, these same Philistines actually think they’re sophisticated and superior.

    Comment by Thorsten — February 25, 2017 at 4:13 pm

  5. Thorsrten makes an excellent point with his quote. (I noticed something similar several years ago at the BSO: an outstanding performance of the Beethoven 6th Symphony elicited mild applause, and after intermission a good performance of the 7th was wildly applauded. Maybe some of the blame goes to Beethoven for how he ended each symphony, but surely the audience was mainly at fault.)

    On Thursday, Maestro Nelsons didn’t milk the Shostakovich for all it was worth, but the audience knew they were supposed to love it, and the ending reaffirmed that for them.

    I’d have gone anyway for the world premiere of the Gubaidulina Triple Concerto. Thorsten missed an interesting piece. It may not need to be played again this season or next, but it certainly should be performed now and then.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 25, 2017 at 7:10 pm

  6. Surely if we want “music that suits our dark times”, banality is just what’s called for. I agree that Nelsons did a good job of avoiding being maudlin and melodramatic, but this review made up for that.

    I hate to agree with Thorsten, but unfortunately I do fairly often, and this is one of those times. The audience responded with immense enthusiasm to the manipulative vulgarity of the work. I don’t blame Nelsons, who did an honorable job of seeing what could be achieved by treating the piece with respect. But it doesn’t deserve very much respect. There’s good music in it, but it’s mixed with too much crap, over too long a span. I think this might be an example of the pernicious influence of genius; Mahler can make a sublime whole out of a hodgepodge of seemingly disparate elements, some of them on their own maudlin or vulgar or trivial. This tempts his admirers to think they can do the same, and usually they can’t.

    I was able to enjoy the march much more after I recalled the last grotesque march I had heard in that hall, and decided to think of it as a combination of Bolero and Symphonie Fantastique. Of course, being Russian, it was necessary that it be three time as long as its French originals. The wide Russian spaces ! That’s how we beat Napoleon !

    Comment by SamW — February 25, 2017 at 11:52 pm

  7. When a narcissist writes music criticism it’s irrelevant that he hasn’t heard the performance.

    Comment by Tom Concannon — February 26, 2017 at 9:23 am

  8. As one of the “ideologically simple” audience members on Saturday night, I am not ashamed so say that I was blown away by the Shostakovich – both the piece and the performance. No one seems to deny that the BSO is in superb form right now.

    The 7th Symphony is a piece I’ve read about for years and to hear it live was, for me, a thrill. The work is certainly a product of it’s time. While there seems to be some controversy about its true programatic meaning, there’s no question that it spoke very powerfully to a citizenry in unfathomable extremis. The final movement seems triumphant and, at the same time, unbearably bleak – as if to say: our city is destroyed, most of our friends are dead, we are starving, but we’re still here.

    But I’m just one of those “PBS viewers”, so what I do know?

    Comment by Michael Beattie — February 27, 2017 at 11:20 am

  9. I thank Sam for trying to be fair.

    the quote only tells people, no matter how well or how bad a shostakovich symphony is played, there will always be large number of American audience get excited. This has been observed on this very forum. Music is certainly not political story telling. This approach to music is anti-art, anti-intelligent. I never had to read about great music.

    This only explains why I did not attend the concert. My comment stops here, so that concert goers can comment on performance.

    Comment by Thorsten — February 28, 2017 at 4:13 pm

  10. Saturday nights performance of the ” Leningrad ” Symphony certainly carried on and brought to a historic climax – the legacy of the BSO’s involvement with this intensely dramatic piece.
    (Koussevitzky having led the first public performance in the West, with the resident Tanglewood orchestra, in the summer of 1942 – shortly after the Toscanini/NBC broadcast premiere in July, 1942-with the first BSO performances under Koussevitzky,being performed in Symphony Hall,later that fall.

    Noting the dramatic sweep and forward pulse and momentum that Nelson’s brought to the performance of the 7th Symphony, one might have gleaned a certain personal and special attachment that he has with this piece- and yes -Nelsons has previously identified the fact of his having grown up in the Soviet-era system and the ramifications thereof, as having had a significant effect on his musical outlook,etc.( he studied conducting in St. Petersburg, formerly ‘ Leningrad ‘)

    His conducting body language,attention to detail and shaping of dynamic contrast in the various orchestral sections ( giving the final chord its maximum held crescendo ! )- all contributed to making this performance, one that will stand out in memory for a long time. The performance was recorded for DG Records-as part of the BSO’s ongoing recorded cycle of all 15 of the Shostakovitch Symphonies. The previous two releases having won Grammys for ” Best Recorded Orchestral Performance ” and judging by Saturday nights outstanding performance, the BSO and Nelson’s are certainly in contention for a – ” triple-crown ” – for next years classical music Grammy awards.

    Comment by Ron Barnell — March 1, 2017 at 1:06 am

  11. I heard the Thursday BSO concert. Gubaidulina’s piece underwhelmed. Perhaps it was a matter of seating far right front, because hearing it on the Saturday broadcast was a distinct pleasure.

    The Shostakovich 7th, I find, gets to one at a visceral level regardless of one’s convictions about its origins, ultimate value, and so on. It is alternately heartbreaking and chilling.

    Nelson’s search for absolute precision and the exposition of every voice in every bar reveals new things, but it creates a kind of lack of forward motion that saps the piece’s energy and lyricism. The Bernstein recording with the Chicago Symphony becomes a bit ponderous as the tempi seem trudging, especially in the last movement. I have been listening recently to a recording by Stokowski with the NBC Symphony from the forties, and it has this wonderful singing arc to it, the basic line and the occasional counterpoint carrying one along on an emotionally trying, but ultimately triumphant adventure. He brings out the beauty that carries the pathos.

    Comment by Mike — March 3, 2017 at 11:23 am

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