IN: Reviews

Psalmists and Agitpropers Divide Symphony Hall


Jennifer Koh (Aram Boghosian photo)

As an entry in a forthcoming complete Shostakovich collection for DGG, the BSO gave its first Symphony Hall performance of Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, The First of May, for mixed chorus and orchestra (1929) this weekend. The orchestra had done a Tanglewood runthrough last summer as they had with the composer’s similar second symphony a couple of years earlier.  Much of what I wrote of that triumphalism with wrong notes can apply equally to the third:

Shostakovich’s mercifully short Symphony No. 2, To October, celebrates a struggle for revolution with a struggle for listeners. Not a symphony in a formal sense, it exercises, at least in its first movement, what the People’s Critics called Formalism, enough for it to disappear from concert halls for 40 years after its 1927 premiere (a decade after the Revolution). The largo first movement opens with basso profundo agitations (or agitprop?) that work up the registers into the upper strings. A muted trumpet solo introduces a purportedly 13-part fugue of worker gossip, before the means of production, martial snares and the like, lead further to an Ivesian apotheosis decorated with tune fragments celebrating Worker Triumph. This strange stuff, much stranger than my description, concluded with a victorious setup of the choral second movement.

“We marched, we asked for work and bread … factory chimneys towered toward the sky … terrible were the names of our shackles …. Oh, Lenin, you forged freedom through struggling … our fate bears the name: Struggle,” according to prole poet Alexander Bezmensky. I excerpt his interminable pain paean in order to avoid depicting the struggle that listeners endured. The compleatnik BSO surely chose to perform this pre-ironic Shostakovich only as a warmup for its Symphony Hall traversal in the fall and subsequent DGG recording of the complete symphonies. Spoiler alert: The excellent Tanglewood Festival chorus confirmed in the end that future generations would forever celebrate ‘October, the Commune and Lenin.’ The bourgeois capitalist crowd did not seem convinced, nor was Orwell, writing that “All men are enemies. All animals are comrades.

Except for the third’s organization into a single episodic movement, versus the conventional four for the second, the two effusions (hardly symphonies) can be considered similar aberrations in the composer’s oeuvre. Perhaps the only difference is that the third requires something like half an hour of warmup before the chorus enters while the second gets to that point after about 15 minutes.

Once again, the TFC erected a stirringly wide wall of gorgeous and appropriate Russian sound and fury signifying little, yet this time occasioning a contextualization: “The BSO stands with the citizens of Ukraine…” Hindsight shows us where Semyon Isaakovich Kirsanov’s words (perhaps better not to translate them) continue to lead:

Banners rising like the sun,
march, let your steps resound.
Every May Day
is a step towards Socialism.

May Day is the march
of armed miners.
Into the squares, revolution,
march with a million feet!

Much later Glickman quoted Shostakovich, “…two [of my symphonies], I suppose, are completely unsatisfactory – the Second and Third.” And yes, the Soviet authorities were right to ban them. These two exercises failed to stir the patriotic masses (as Marche Slav or Va, Pensiero would have done). Neither did they appeal to the cognoscenti as the composer’s coeval The Nose.

Nelsons led a boffo account (ending at 10:20) which, despite an amazingly potent bass drum, resounding cymbal, and fearless snare drum, added no bathetic elements beyond the composer’s own. Yet it seems unlikely that purchasers of the large, boxed set are going to be wearing out the grooves of these tracks.

The concert had opened with the Symphony Hall debut of Elizabeth Ogonek’s Starling Variations competed last spring on co-commission from the BSO. The composer asked us to consider, as a pathway to the piece, that starling murmurations evoked clouds for her, and that we should think of her response as “boisterous, rhapsodical, lyrical and humorous.” With a great ear for handling a big orchestra, Ogonek layered sounds and images with Ivesian warmth and relentlessness over a broad dynamic range and with multitudinous characterizations. It went over well with the crowd.

As if from a parallel universe, the center held, first with Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium. Ever since the Koussevitzky Foundation-commissioned work premiered, the Serenade, like many virtuosic concerti, has inspired famous advocates. But how is one to take the references to Greek philosophers?

Vadim Gluzman asked Isaac Stern how literally one should take the text…“Isaac said that Bernstein had told him, ‘Just think of love.’ From that I took that for Bernstein, the music and the literary inspiration were parallel universes. You can try to make the connections, but love is always the guiding light.”

With but a week’s notice to re-learn the part, Jennifer Koh strode onto the stage with fluorescent magenta hair and with much theatrical headshaking, giving the appearance of a red cockaded woodpecker. Her steadfast, clean accurate and at-times moving playing left no doubts about the strength of her advocacy, though her tone rarely bloomed in the house.

 BMInt has reviewed Bernstein’s Serenade twice before. Forgive the slightly contrived look back. Jeffrey Gantz wrote:

Form aside, Serenade could hardly be expected to convey the matter of the Symposium. Plato’s lineup includes a lawyer, a physician, a comic playwright, a tragic poet, a general, and a philosopher. The dialogue encompasses questions like whether love promotes virtue, whether love between a man and a young boy is mutually beneficial, whether love is a god or a spirit. None of this registers in the music.

Linus Schafer-Goulthorpe (Aram Boghosian photo)

This writer opined a few years back (content updated):

Leonard Bernstein said that he was thinking of Platonic ideals when he penned his diverting Serenade after Plato’s Symposium,” but the krater-of-wine aspects of symposia seemed to inspire him most vividly.

Yes, though we could imagine the ancient dialogues now occurring between orchestra and soloist and among the sections, the duet between violin soloist Jennider Koh and cellist Blaise Déjardin stood out as perhaps the most Socratic…and heartfelt. Nelsons and Koh found the proper measure of every episode.

In the slow movement, based on Agathon’s paean to love, the muted opening floated long and liquid, like a first krater of quiet fellowship, which Koh imbibed in steady and invested tones, catching fire in the concluding cadenza. As annotator Paul Griffiths referred to depictions of “rising passion,” we can’t help but append the statesman Eubulus’s brief fourth-century BCE poem from a fragment of his play on Dionysus (Thomas Cahill’s translation):

Who but Dionysus pours the flowing wine and mixes water in the streaming bowls tonight?

One bowl for ruddy health, then one for getting off,
the third brings sleep—and wise men leave before they’re tight.

For after that the bowls no more belong to us:
the fourth’s for hubris and the fifth for lots of noise,
the sixth for mindless f….g, followed by black eyes,
the eighth brings the police, the ninth’s for throwing up,
the tenth for trashing everything before we stop.

Lenny especially knew how to depict the nosier fourth through tenth bowls with conjurings of West Side Story.

Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, a 1965 commission from the dean of Chichester Cathedral, provided a comforting antidote, especially if one is an Israelite, to the evening’s bravura excesses. And it also disproved the notion that the language of the Psalmists is unfit for singing. The evening’s main draw for us was hearing the BSO’s legendary vocal contingent.

By dint of demanding re-auditions, conductor James Burton has kept the Tanglewood Festival Chorus among the top ranks of such ensembles. Its massive sound preserves youthful freshness. When individuals within it step out as soloists, as the mellifluous quartet did in Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, we can understand why auditions pay off. The ensemble can conform with great musicianship to whatever style, language, or interpretive demand conductors place on it. We salute the 100 or so unpaid members, some in their 40th years of participation, on their first appearance of the season.

Linus Schafer-Goulthorpe, the boy soprano in Psalm 23, beginning, as King David himself might have, to the accompaniment of the harp, not only floated emotionally true and perfectly focused sounds; he also mastered the Hebrew consonants and gave the impression of understanding the actual words rather than depending on transliteration. Nelsons maintained perfect balances among boy, chorus, and orchestra. In acapella moments he dropped his baton and shaped with open hands.

Many remarkable moments included Bernstein’s better-than-Handel’s text painting in “Why Do the Nations Rage?”, Blaise Déjardin’s peacefully flowing expressions of golden hope for the future of God’s chosen, and Thomas Rolfs’s muted trumpet solo.

The comforting saga ended with a perfectly sustained, very expressive slow acapella blessing from the chorus and a satisfying benediction from the orchestra. “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” Anyone listening? Any psalmists-harpists among our leaders?

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

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