Yo-Yo Ma is the draw for the second weekend of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 2023–2024 season, and never mind that Shostakovich’s two cello concertos aren’t the most popular works in the repertoire, Symphony Hall is sold out for all four performances. Rounding out the bill are Haydn’s Symphony No. 22, “The Philosopher,” and Canadian-Iranian composer Iman Habibi’s Zhiân, a BSO commission that premiered at Tanglewood this past July. Some philosophy to start, then, and plenty of politics thereafter.
The first half is hardly familiar territory for BSO audiences. Jorge Mester gave “The Philosopher” its BSO debut at Tanglewood in 1976; James Levine led subsequent Symphony Hall performances in 1994 and 2007. Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto debuted here in 1975 (Mstislav Rostropovich) and was repeated in 1999 (Lynn Harrell) and 2007 (Truls Mørk).
Haydn wrote Symphony No. 22 in 1764. The four movements — slow–fast–minuet–fast — are characteristic of a sonata da chiesa and not unusual for Haydn. The instrumentation, on the other hand, is one-of-a-kind: two English horns, two French horns, and strings. The title “Philosopher” is not on the autograph manuscript (which survives); it first turns up on a copy of the symphony found in Modena in 1790, at which time Haydn was still alive, so perhaps he approved it.
The opening Adagio begins with walking-bass strings over which the French horns declaim a four-note motif and the English horns answer. It certainly could be the start of a philosophical debate, French horns stating a position, English horns demurring. The upper strings gradually forsake the walking bass and join in. At one point in the development, the English horns quote the French horns’ motif, as if acquiescing, but the debate continues to the end, when the four horns play in unison. The first Presto finds the strings dominating the dialogue and the horns reduced to comments; in the Menuet the strings take up the tick-tock of the Adagio and then the horns reply in the Trio. The final Presto, in 6/8, puts an end to serious matters as all four horns announce a hunt and the strings go galloping off. It’s all over in 17 minutes more or less.
Thursday’s reading from Nelsons lasted quite a bit less — 13 minutes, by my watch. Perhaps it was a matter of repeats. The Adagio went by in a flash, at any rate; it seemed unyielding, and there was a tiny bobble from the French horns right at the outset. But what a treat to hear this piece with its four horns, and the players — Rachel Childers and Michael Winter on French horn, Robert Sheena and Mark McEwen on English horn — held their own against a full complement of BSO strings (50 at least) plus a continuo duo of bassoon and keyboard. That was especially true of the first Presto, where the horns’ commentary came through. The Menuet was heavy-footed in an attractively old-fashioned way, as if the philosophers weren’t the most graceful dancers; the horns glowed in the Trio. The Presto finale ended almost before it began.
Shostakovich wrote his Cello Concerto No. 2 in 1966, as a kind of 60th-birthday present for himself; like his First Concerto, he dedicated it to Rostropovich, who gave the premiere. It’s a dark, uneasy work; that probably explains why Nelsons has placed it before intermission and is ending the program with the more extroverted First. Like the Fourth Symphony, the Second Cello Concerto has two large outer movements bookending a short intermezzo. The tempo markings are unusual, however: Largo followed by Allegretto and Allegretto. The Largo opens with a claustrophobic four-note motto that moves in minor seconds, as if no appreciable distance would be politically acceptable. The brooding first subject sighs; the second subject sways uncertainly; the orchestra seems at a loss. The development brings one of Shostakovich’s trademark snarky marches; there are times when one section of the orchestra seems to be marching while another flees from the police. A bass drum cuts off the development; when the cello tries to continue, the bass drum keeps interrupting. French horn has the last word, intoning the four-note motto; the beginning is the end.
The intermezzo Allegretto hits back with Jewish tunes and folk music. In a letter to his friend Isaac Glikman, Shostakovich explained, “In the second movement and in the climax of the third there is a theme that is very similar to the popular Odessa song ‘Kupite bubliki’ [“Buy my bagels”]. I couldn’t begin to explain what provoked me to do this.” Perhaps when life leaves you wondering, you buy bagels and throw a party where the guests include piccolo, xylophone, contrabassoon, snare drum, and whooping French horns. A horn-and-snare-drum fanfare leads straight into the Allegretto finale, which is one of Shostakovich’s strangest notions. The fanfare, which lasts almost a minute, is followed by a fanfare cadenza for cello and tambourine. Then there’s a sequence of sweet cadence (for solo cello), ambling melody, and spectral march that reappears in theme and four variations, except that the third and fourth variations are interrupted by flashbacks to the first two movements and, at one point, an allusion to the “breakthrough” from the Finale of Mahler’s First Symphony. There’s no breakthrough here, however. The concerto concludes with the percussion section playing a tick-tock rhythm, as if time were running out; alone in the final bars, the cello flatlines, making a slight crescendo and then coming to an abrupt stop.
Before starting, Ma picked up a mic and took a few minutes to talk about the Stalinist era in Soviet Russia and explain why the Second Cello Concerto is as relevant today as it was back then. He said that the piece gives the lie to Stalin’s quip (attributed to Stalin, at least) that “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic,” and that in this concerto Shostakovich “represents the voice of the voiceless.” All of which is true, and practically everything Shostakovich composed fell under the shadow of political repression. But Shostakovich wrote the Second Cello Concerto 13 years after Stalin’s death, and though he was then dealing with new generation of political adversaries, the piece seems more of a meditation on his life and world, a sober appraisal upon reaching 60.
It’s also a difficult work to put across, but Ma and Nelsons did so brilliantly. The opening motto suggested a muted version of Shostakovich’s D–S–C–H motif, as if the composer were hoping to pass incognito. Ma’s searching traversal of the first theme made me wonder whether Shostakovich didn’t have in mind the Adagio of Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony. Ma played with shimmering tone and made the phrases sing; it was all lyrical but never bland or politically naïve. He brought to the swaying second theme a kind of shifting light, after which the development went from spooky to anguished. The bass drum took no prisoners; Ma’s regretful resumption of the second theme subsided into muttering, and it was left to Richard Sebring’s sharp-edged French horn to admit that the music had returned to where it started.
Ma turned the first Allegretto (barely five minutes long, the other two movements run about 15 minutes each), into a playful drama, with cheeky support from the orchestra. The bagel-party guests were well characterized, from gruff timpani to crystalline xylophone. The second Allegretto began with a fine caterwauling of horns, and then in the fanfare cadenza the tambourine was nicely audible against Ma’s intense playing (often one doesn’t hear it at all). The sweet cadence can be just a structural marker; Ma gave it some thought, and in the recurring melody section he got sterling support from Elizabeth Rowe’s flute in the theme section and William R. Hudgins’s clarinet in the first variation. The return of the Largo’s first theme was heartrending; the Mahler First allusion led not to a triumphant finish but instead flashed back to the bagel party, a cacophonous affair complete with whip. The final spectral march with woodblock, snare drum, tambourine, and xylophone found Ma holding onto a low D for 14 measures, as if the cello had fallen asleep. When the rest of the orchestra stopped, he seemed to wake up with a start, an imaginative touch, as if the concerto had been a bad dream and the composer could awake from the horrors of the past.
Zhiân pays tribute to Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Iranian woman who died in a Tehran hospital in September 2022 after being arrested by Iran’s Guidance Patrol and charged with not wearing the hajib. The official version of her death is that she suffered a heart attack at a police station; eyewitnesses, however, reported that she was severely beaten by the police and suggest she died from a cerebral hemorrhage. The widespread protests that followed have led to many more deaths.
In his program note, Habibi explains, “Over the past several months, a new wave of protests (what has resembled a revolution) began following the death of Mahsa (Zhina or Jina) Amini, and several other young women. Inspired by Mahsa’s Kurdish name, Zhina, Woman, Life, Freedom (Zhen, Zhiân, Âzâdi), has become the main slogan of these protests, and the basic spoken rhythm of this slogan forms the main motivic element of this piece. The title, Zhiân, translates to “life” in Kurdish, and to ‘indignant’ or ‘formidable’ in Persian.”
This time it was Nelsons’s turn to address the audience. I expected him to speak of events in Iran but his subject was rather Hamas’s attack on Israel, and he offered his sympathy to anyone with friends and relatives who have died. It was an emotional moment that Zhiân didn’t quite prolong. The 13-minute work is “Dedicated to the brave people of Iran”; Habibi adds, “The music carries us through darkness and light, but resolves in the end with a determination to continue striving towards a just, sustainable, and vibrant future.”
The score opens with the indication “Dark and stifling”; Habibi modifies the tempo from time to time but gives no further clue as to the emotional content. An initial ff chattering in the strings quickly gives way to music that is indeed dark and stifling, as if a divine hand were moving slowly over murky water. The large orchestra, which includes bass clarinet, bass trombone, contrabassoon, and a modest percussion array, is used in choirs, so the proceedings don’t clot. Brass and harp suggest sunlight; then outbursts from the timpani and bass drum take us into the world of the Guidance Patrol and elicit an outcry from the rest of the orchestra. Thereafter Zhiân moves slowly toward its “just, sustainable, and vibrant future,” but not without further jolts.
Shostakovich composed his First Cello Concerto in 1959; he needed two months to write it, but Rostropovich required just four days to memorize it for the Leningrad premiere. The piece has been offered by the BSO on 30 occasions. In ten of those performances Ma took the solos, most recently in 2013. His made his one recording with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1982.
The first of the four movements, Allegretto, begins with a four-note figure in the cello that Shostakovich recycled from the “Death of the Heroes” segment of his score for the 1948 film The Young Guard. Although it substitutes G–F-flat–C-flat–B-flat for his signature D–S–C–H (German for the notes D–E-flat–C–B), the rhythm stamps his identity on this movement. While the orchestra gallops along underneath, the soloist goes on a dizzy slalom, zigzagging from 2/2 to 3/2 and back, seemingly just a step (as so often in Shostakovich) ahead of the secret police. A pair of the composer’s typical “Jewish”-sounding themes dance dizzily without quite getting anywhere. Throughout the cello engages in conversation with the one French horn and the winds, as if they were fellow escapees.
The Moderato begins with a brief, mournful chorale for orchestra; the French horn answers, and then the cello enters with a haunting lullaby that might be a prayer of thanksgiving for having achieved a moment of safety. Solo clarinet and horn continue the conversation, which builds to an anguished climax; the horn makes one last statement and then the cello, in harmonics, duets with the celesta, as if turning to Heaven.
After this moment of eternity a five-minute Cadenza ensues; its four parts are separated by plucked chords, where the cello takes up the themes of the previous movements and at one point echoes the beginning of the Eroica’s “Marcia funebre.” The Allegro con moto rondo finale incorporates a distorted version of the Georgian folk song “Suliko” (said to be a favorite of Stalin’s) and echoes of the original motto theme along with sardonic four-note commentary by the timpani. Voices are raised; “Suliko,” the motto theme, and the ritornello all compete with one another until seven strokes from the timpani bring everyone up short. Like the Second Cello Concerto, the First doesn’t end so much as stop.
Ma’s opening motto was forthright, almost aggressive, the composer standing up for himself. He reveled in the “Jewish” themes, even as the winds shrieked like police sirens and the French horn (Richard Sebring excellent here and throughout the evening) took up the motto as if in support. The coda found Ma persisting with that motto until the timpani cut him off; the winds rejected this shutdown with a few bars of the “Jewish” music.
The Moderato went at a reasonable clip; Nelsons didn’t turn it into an Andante, as sometimes happens. The chorale was hushed and mysterious; Ma’s lullaby was searing; Sebring’s horn and Hudgins’s clarinet commiserated. When the cello lullaby grew querulous, the timpani again intervened. The horn made one last statement; then Ma got an eerie sound out of his instrument without letting it sound like a glass harmonica, and Vitas Baskys’s celesta twinkled like a first-magnitude star.
Now impulsive, now rhapsodic, Ma breathed life into the Cadenza, taking special care with the pizzicato dividers; they sounded like musical motifs rather than mere markers. The Allegro con moto finale became a dance with the devil, a four-note figure from the timpani that kept interrupting. The motto from the opening movement returned, mostly in the horn, until the timpani cut it off one last time.
The two concertos added up to an hour of playing, so the audience had got its money’s worth and more. A packed Symphony Hall nonetheless seemed primed for an encore, but when the house lights dimmed, Ma’s solo chair was still empty. Instead, the cello section performed the serene Prelude from Shostakovich’s Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano as arranged by Gautier Capuçon. Ma had in fact slipped into a seat at the back of the cellos, and in a characteristically humble gesture, he joined in from there.
The BSO is recording both concertos for its BSO’s Shostakovich Project. All 15 symphonies are now available; the two violin concertos (with Baba Skride), the two piano concertos (with Yuja Wang and, in the first, trumpeter Thomas Rolfs), and the two cello concertos will eventually join them, along with the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which the BSO will present in January. I had expected that Ma and Nelsons would be well suited to each other in their thoughtful, humane view of Shostakovich, and so it proved Thursday.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 45 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.