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Baltic/Slavic BSO Beginnings and Endings

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Daniel Lozakovich (Hilary Scott photo)

The ever-popular Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, with the remarkable 18-year-old Swedish soloist Daniel Lozakovich, formed the centerpiece of this weekend’s concerts from Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall. The three shorter pieces on this Baltic/Slavic program had more particularly piqued my interest. For starters, I expected something interesting in the world premiere of “My River runs to thee . . . ,” a BSO/Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra co-commission by Nelsons’s Latvian compatriot Arturs Maskats. And then the second half began with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in Ukraine-born Estonian composer Galina Gigorjeva’s 1999 Na iskhod (“On Leaving”), a mostly a cappella setting of Orthodox prayers for the dead. Shostakovich’s single-movement Symphony No. 2 (To October), a “celebration” of the Bolshevik Revolution closed the concert. In short, death and rebirth, if not resurrection. All three shorter pieces made Symphony Hall debuts. They’ll be welcome back any time, as will Lozakovich.

“Death and rebirth” is actually too limiting for Maskats’s piece, or at least for the Emily Dickinson poem that’s its starting point. “My River runs to thee” is breathtaking in its brevity:

My River runs to thee —
Blue Sea — Wilt welcome me?

My River wait reply —
Oh Sea — look graciously — 

I’ll fetch thee Brooks
From spotted nooks —

Say — Sea — Take Me! 

Is Emily addressing a mortal lover or her immortal God? Perhaps both.

Maskats’s score is inscribed “In memoriam Andrejs Žagars.” In his program note, Nelsons writes that “when I began my career as a trumpet player in the orchestra of the Latvian National Opera, Andrejs Žagars was the company’s general manager,” and that both Žagars, who died this past February, and Maskats, a former artistic director of the Latvian National Opera, have been mentors and longtime friends.

Maskats cites his inspiration for “My River runs to thee . . . ” as a pilgrimage to Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst. The result was a 15-minute piece whose instrumental forces include cor anglais, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, marimba, temple blocks, tambourine, piccolo snare drum, celesta, and wind machine. It might seem odd that whereas Dickinson made do with so little in her poetry, Maskats, like so many contemporary composers, requires so much. What he doesn’t call for is the human voice — this is an orchestral composition. He explains, “In the musical narrative I use her poetic images of the sea, two butterflies, the ambiance of a beautiful summer day, and solitude.” There are no butterflies in “My River runs to thee”; in his program note, Robert Kirzinger directs us to another Dickinson poem, “Two Butterflies went out at Noon,” in which the Butterflies “stepped straight through the Firmament” and then, “bore away / Upon a shining Sea,” gave no report of their ultimate whereabouts.

“My River runs to thee . . . ” began with quiet rolls on timpani and bass drum before a clarinet melody emerged, a mazy river wandering wherever. This built to a surging, ferocious climax, the music evolving rather than developing, in the way that Sibelius’s so often does. After that subsided and piccolo spoke up, a waltz erupted. “Two Butterflies went out at Noon” includes the line “waltzed above a Farm,” but this ungainly section didn’t suggest butterflies so much as gently swaying camels, and that was true of the following 12/8 section. We got another raucous climax, this time with brass, then a few minutes of bustling Allegretto before the concluding Adagio, where cor anglais, echoing the original clarinet tune, led to a finish with trumpet and wind machine and twinkling stars.

Maskats came on stage at the end to warm and well deserved applause. As new pieces go, “My River runs to thee . . . ” is eminently listenable; I would be happy to hear it again. But on one go-round, I’m not sure where it went. Not anywhere near the Dickinson poem, as far as I could tell. I don’t know that any non-vocal piece could.    

Tchaikovsky wrote his only violin concerto in Switzerland in the spring of 1878, in the wake of his abortive 1877 marriage to Antonina Milyukova, so you could say it represents a kind of rebirth. Although the piece came freely, its dedicatee, Leopold Auer, declined to premiere it. The concerto made its debut in Vienna in 1881, with Adolf Brodsky as soloist, and was hardly a huge success. Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick allowed that “for a while the concerto “moves musically, and not without spirit. But soon vulgarity gains the upper hand and asserts itself to the end of the first movement. The violin is no longer played; it is pulled, torn, shredded. The Adagio is again doing its best to calm us, to win us over. But it quickly breaks off to make way for a finale that transports us to the brutal and wretched jollity of a Russian church festival. We see vulgar, savage faces; we hear crude curses; we smell spirits.”

Contemporary audiences will be hard pressed to see, hear, or smell anything of the sort. Tchaikovsky starts off with a brief, tentative introduction that, like the grand polonaise that begins his First Piano Concerto, will not be heard again. This is music that might introduce a prima ballerina, so it’s worth remembering that Swan Lake came just two years earlier. The orchestra then takes up a melody that also sounds like the precursor to an entrance, but when the solo violin arrives and tiptoes into the Moderato assai first theme, we realize the “precursor” was it — we’ve been misdirected, as so often with Tchaikovsky. The composer rubs it in by twice turning the theme into the kind of grand orchestral tutti that would be suitable for Swan Lake’s Prince Siegfried. And whereas the cadenza should come, as everybody knows, right before the coda, here it turns up at the 10-minute mark, making you wonder whether you missed the recapitulation. No, the recapitulation and the coda are still to come.

The Canzonetta, marked Andante (Hanslick may not have had a score available when he called it an Adagio), is a straightforward ABA, but just as it seems to be winding down, the full orchestra erupts into the folk-like rondo theme of the Allegro vivace finale. The first interlude brings to movement to an abrupt halt; it may stagger as if drunk (perhaps that’s what prompted Hanslick to smell the vodka), but that’s just the tease before the showing off, and then the second part of the interlude brings a wind duet that the soloist takes up. The “jollity of a Russian church festival” (or any Russian festival) for sure — too bad Hanslick thought that a bad thing.

As one of the most popular violin concertos in the repertoire, Tchaikovsky’s has been subjected to every excess of interpretation. Lozakovich gave a lovely rendition by seeming to do nothing at all — a little like Nelsons in his Shostakovich symphony cycle. That’s a gross oversimplification, but by going back to the score and just breathing into it, Lozakovich obtained a natural-sounding result. Most teenage musical prodigies achieve fame by being technical wizards. Lozakovich does not lack for technique, but it’s his artistic maturity that stands out.

Thursday’s performance was, no surprise, very similar to the recording that Deutsche Grammophon released last month with his mentor, Vladimir  Spivakov, and the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia. Nelsons offered a delicate, gracious introduction, and Lozakovich entered on a warm sigh. Throughout he was forthright but spontaneous, never tense, never in a hurry to seem passionate, sweet in the upper register and rich in the lower, his phrasing full of shy hesitations and other nuances. He took the Allegro moderato’s second subject at virtually the same tempo as the first (Tchaikovsky doesn’t call for any change), but his relaxed approach made it feel different. And he played with the cadenza without ever losing its overall arc.

The Andante began with piquant winds reminiscent of the opening movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony (which had premiered in February 1878). Here Lozakovich was sad and mysterious. Nelsons paused just enough to signal the more animated middle section, and then when the first theme returned and the soloist joined the winds’ conversation, Lozakovich grew more thoughtful and personal. In the robust Allegro vivace finale he was nimble and jocular. In no way was his violin “pulled,” “torn,” or “shredded”; it maintained its dignity, and the movement became a giddy sleigh ride akin to the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony.

Nelsons’s accompaniment seemed more extroverted than Spivakov’s on the recording. That second grand orchestral tutti sounded like a repeat of the first; I wonder whether it wouldn’t have had more impact if he had stretched it out just a tad. Yet like his soloist, Nelsons was happy to let Tchaikovsky be his guide. The concluding pages were breathless but not dizzy; the final notes should bring the audience to its feet, and Thursday they did.   

Grigorjeva was born in the Ukrainian Crimea and studied in Odessa and St. Petersburg before moving to Estonia. She has written this about Na iskhod: “For this composition I turned to the prayer book and selected lines from the ‘Canon to Jesus Christ Our Lord and the Virgin Mary on the Hour of Leaving of Orthodox Souls’ (parts 1-3) and from the chapter ‘On Burying Lay People’ (parts 4-5). While working on the composition I acquainted myself with the 15th-17th century tradition of [Russian] polyphonic singing and with various forms of Russian sacred poetry. The natural dissonance and the almost impenetrable rhythmic organization of heterophonic polyphony I find most remarkable. It’s these very elements, to my mind, that give the national musical culture its distinctness.”

The five-part piece, which runs about 22 minutes, starts with a “Canon on the Separation of the Soul from the Body” in which the chorus, intoning “Gospodi pomilui” (“Lord have mercy”), sounds very separated indeed. Part 2 begins with a tenor solo backed by recorder or flute and triangles: “Like drops of rain my evil days and few, dried up by summer’s heat, already gently vanish.” The flute seems to be bearing the soul aloft. But then the basses come to the fore in Part 3 with a more sober outlook: “The night of death, gloomy and moonless, hath overtaken me, still unready, sending me forth on that long and dreadful journey unprepared.” Joined by the tenors, they rise to a communal triumph, and in Part 4, the women seem to confirm this: “With the saints give rest, O Christ, to the souls of thy servants, where there is neither sickness, nor sorrow, nor sighing, but life everlasting.” (The BSO program gives “light,” but the word in Grigorjeva’s Church Slavonic text, and in both the Russian and the Greek Orthodox order of service, is unambiguously “life.”) Part 5, however, is somber again: “For out of the earth were we mortals made, and unto the earth shall we return again. . . . Whither also all we mortals wend our way, making our funeral dirge the song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

The piece was led by TFC director James Burton, and I was moved by the reverent, luminous clarity he drew from the chorus. Although Part 1 is addressed to the soul leaving the body, Grigorjeva’s setting conjured images of the Creation from Genesis, as if the soul were traveling back through time. The tenor soloist in Part 2, Matthew Anderson, was light but pleasing; the flutist, Elizabeth Ostling, registered more strongly. Part 3 was stunningly even in its declamation; Part 4 was full of both light and life; Part 5 again belied its text to suggest angels. At any point at which you could expect the text to be intelligible, it was. When it wasn’t, we had dissonance and heterophonic polyphony to savor.   

In 1927, the 20-year-old Shostakovich was commissioned by the Propaganda Department of the State Publishing House to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. The result, at some 20 minutes, is the shortest of his 15 symphonies, and many deem it the worst. [The publisher agreed with this characterization in a review last summer HERE] I suppose there has to be a “worst” Shostakovich symphony (but that would be equally true of Beethoven, or Schumann, or Brahms); even so, I’m not convinced the Second is it. The sound picture, in large part, is that of Russian Constructivism — think Kazimir Malevich — at a time when the Bolshevik Revolution was sympathetic to modernism in the arts. (Consider that in 1934 the composer’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was “good,” and then in 1936 it became “not good.”)

So what’s the problem? Mostly the “program.” Shostakovich’s excellent Symphony No. 12, which Nelsons and the BSO did two weeks back, gets a similar bad rap from critics too busy unpacking its The Year of 1917 subtitle to listen to the actual music. In the case of the Second Symphony, the “villain” is the concluding choral text by Alexander Bezymensky that the composer was required to set. Shostakovich is said to have called Bezymensky’s poem “abominable.” Is it really that bad? Judge for yourself:

Percussionist Kyle Brightwell, flutist Elizabeth Ostling, tenor Matthew Anderson, TFC Conductor James Burton (Hilary Scott photo)

We marched, we asked for work and bread,
Our hearts were gripped in a vise of anguish.
Factory chimneys towered to the sky,
Like hands powerless to make a fist.
Horrifying were the names of our shackles:
Silence, Suffering, Oppression.

But louder than gunfire there burst into the silence
The words of our torment, the words of our suffering.
O Lenin! You forged freedom through suffering,
You forged freedom from our work-hardened hands.
We understood, Lenin, that our fate
Bears a name: Struggle.

Struggle! You led us to the final battle.
Struggle! You gave us the victory of labor.
And no one can ever take away from us|
This victory over oppression and darkness.
Let everyone in the struggle be young and bold:
Let the name of the victory be: October!

October! It’s the messenger of the awaited dawn.
October! It’s the freedom of rebellious ages.
This is the slogan, this is the name of living generations:
October, the Commune, and Lenin.

All right, it’s not Shakespeare. But what drags it down is the deification of Lenin. The first four lines could almost be an outtake from Anna Akhmatova. The first four lines of the final stanza are almost poetry. And Shostakovich didn’t exactly highlight the words in his setting. He didn’t even set the final two lines to music. The chorus shouts them, as if to say, “This is where art ends and propaganda begins.”

The symphony actually begins in a kind of moody primordial soup that leaves you to guess whether this is the composer’s view of humanity before the Bolshevik Revolution or after. The strings play various chromatic scales until a muted trumpet, high and lonely, enters as a voice crying in the wilderness. After a brief response from solo tuba, the strings start up a march, and, as always with Shostakovich, what’s meant to pass for a heroic parade of the proletariat sounds suspiciously like a parade of Party pooh-bahs poised to break formation and exterminate said proletariat. This leads to a trio of solo violin, clarinet, and bassoon, each going its own way, and that brings the full orchestra back in a louder, more chaotic version of the symphony’s beginning. Ten minutes in and we haven’t made any progress, despite the French horns’ attempt to impose order. The atmosphere calms; solo viola is heard from, then clarinet, both trying to pave the way for something better.

The Second didn’t start until 10 PM; one might have expected some audience departures at intermission, after the Tchaikovsky, but I didn’t see much evidence of that. You wouldn’t think tempo in such a short work would be an issue, but Kirill Kondrashin in a 1972 recording with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra zips through the piece in 16:45, so I was curious to hear what Nelsons would do. He began with great control but also intensity, as if this were the primordial magma. Thomas Rolfs’s trumpet erupted with almost volcanic force, but it wasn’t till Mike Roylance’s tuba chimed in that the march kicked in, and under Nelsons it became the cartoon version that Shostakovich surely intended. The trio of Tamara Smirnova (violin), William Hudgins (clarinet), and Richard Svoboda (bassoon) was suitably madcap, after which Nelsons shaped a lucid cacophony, with the snare drum making it all sound oddly like Charles Ives.

Viola and clarinet imposed a moratorium. This may be the section of the symphony that came to be called “Death of a Child,” though what child Shostakovich might have had in mind is still debated. In the event, it’s cut off by what in the original was the blast of factory sirens annunciating the chorus. The composer wrote, “I need the sirens to be in the key of F-sharp,” allowing that if they were not available, they could be replaced by the brass instruments. At Symphony Hall, they appeared to be replaced by a Macintosh laptop. I can’t say whether the powerhouse sound the Mac produced was truly in F-sharp, but certainly grabbed attention.

So did the TFC. I had to rethink Shostakovich’s setting of the text: far more of Bezymensky’s poem proved intelligible than I expected. Yet if you didn’t listen hard for the words, the score, with its hints of church bells, might fool you into thinking it was re-orchestrated Mussorgsky opera. (Shostakovich did go on to complete Khovanshchina three decades later.) The factory sirens screamed again following the word “nikogda” (“never”); the text could have been read as praising October rather than the Revolution. The chorus made “Happiness in the fields and at the work benches” sound genuine; the final shout was more jubilant than defiant. The 20 minutes Nelsons took seemed just right. And even if he doesn’t schedule the symphony again anytime soon, there’s the Deutsche Grammophon recording to anticipate.

Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.

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

  1. We were at Thursday night’s concert, and we equally enjoyed it. But I’m going to very much disagree with Jeffrey Gantz’s assessment of Daniel Lozakovich. We did not enjoy his performance at all. With vibrato so wide that it nearly went off the stage, and with a tone quality that was harsh and brittle when playing loud (much of the first movement), he was not enjoyable to listen to. Lozakkovich is a kid (an 18 y/o who looks closer to 13) and he may well one day become a formidable violinist. But he’s not close to being there yet even as technically talented as he is, and honestly it felt akin to kiddie exploitation on Symphony Hall’s stage, which I feel he should not have been on. I recall hearing Vadim Repin play the same concerto, and when I compare in my memory the beautiful tone quality that Repin could evince during the first movement which in Lozakovich’s hands was beyond crude, I’m saddened both for Lozakovich, and the audience, that he received such a thunderous ovation from the crowd at the end. Obviously we were very much in the minority on this performance, but the whole thing felt like a spectacle and for all the wrong reasons. It seems to me the BSO audience of a generation ago was far more discerning than the audience seems to be in 2019.

    I want to say a few words about the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Hats off to James Burton for the magnificent job he has done overhauling the chorus, which was in pretty dire shape when he took it over. It’s a sad reality that in the waning years of John Oliver’s brilliant tenure, the chorus sounded ragged, screechy, and was a major step down in quality from where it had been performing for years. I’ll never forget the substandard performance of the chorus when James Levine conducted them in Brahms’ German Requieum near the start of his tenure. Notwithstanding the very positive audience reception, it was a pretty poor performance and clearly indicated there was a problem urgently needing attention.

    The BSO and Mr. Burton took a lot of public abuse for forcing the entire chorus to re-audition and in effect booting a lot of people out. Maybe this was all handled with less care to the sensitivities of the performers than it should have been, but the bottom line was it was a much-needed step in the right direction. And now, a year and a half removed from those events, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus is sounding so much better. And I’m sure there will be even more improvements to come. For sure there are MANY new faces in the chorus, and it clearly has gotten much younger. Regardless, the results speak for themselves, and it’s only appropriate to give credit to Mr. Burton and the BSO leadership for recognizing they had a problem on their hands, and fixing it.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — November 22, 2019 at 7:59 pm

  2. Interesting that Shostakovich required the factory sirens to be in F#–that’s precisely the specification John Alden Carpenter made for the factory whistle in “Skyscraper” (performed recently by BMOP), written one year earlier. Is that key/pitch a thing for factory “music” of the 1920s?

    Comment by Vance Koven — November 23, 2019 at 10:45 am

  3. Perhaps a comparison with Gershwin’s American in Paris would be in order. He spec’d actual Parisian taxi horns– I don’t know if he made further demands for pitch.

    Still the best recording has those on original instruments: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Et1_OznD-Qw

    Comment by Camilli — November 23, 2019 at 11:48 am

  4. To slide further into Gershwin’s use of horns, a link from that YouTube page: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/02/theater/have-we-been-playing-gershwin-wrong-for-70-years.html

    Comment by Camilli — November 23, 2019 at 11:54 am

  5. “My River runs to thee …” was the pleasant surprise of the evening: a piece getting its world premiere that the BSO should include in a subscription series within the next two years, while the musicians still know it (I presume). Also take it to Tanglewood. This is a gem.

    Too bad the coughers who get bored when music is slow and quiet were out in force for the Grigorjeva on Thursday. It was a fascinating piece and would have done without the distractions. Bring cough drops, people.

    Nelsons agreed to perform all the Shostakovich symphonies for DG to record, so he has to do it. “Pacta sunt servanda,” as he Romans put it. At least this one was short.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 25, 2019 at 12:31 pm

  6. In the Shostakovich, the chorus basses enter immediately after the “factory siren” sounds the first time, on an F# below middle C. This is likely why Shostakovich specified that pitch. The BSO “siren” pitch was, indeed, an F#.

    Comment by J Buecker — November 25, 2019 at 2:03 pm

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