Lucid Culture


From a Smile to a Scream: the Greenwich Village Orchestra Plays Brahms and Shostakovich

There were microphones placed prominently in front of the stage for the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s concert this past Sunday at the Washington Irving High School auditorium. The room appears to date from the late 1800s, complete with organ pipes in the walls (who knows if it still works or if the console is even there anymore), and the acoustics are outstanding for orchestral music. They picked the right program to record: the Brahms Violin Concerto seemed to play itself, and Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony was as riveting and disquieting as its composer intended.

Although somewhat controversial in its day – Brahms’ contemporary, the violinist Pablo de Sarasate refused to play it because he didn’t want to “stand around while the oboe played the only melody in the piece” – the big tripartite concerto is part of the standard repertoire, something that Duncan Pirney probably played to death on WQXR thirty years ago. But hidden in plain sight within the piece’s utterly predictable, stately, cozily nocturnal Teutonic architecture are some delightfully uncharacteristic treats, each of which the orchestra seized on as they appeared. It was like watching an elaborately staged treasure hunt. Among them are the first violin solo, a very difficult and exciting series of runs down the scale, punctuated with lightning-fast double stops, which guest violinist Yosuke Kawasaki played as if he’d been looking forward to the challenge. A close listen – which is what you get in this venue – also reveals plenty of playful rhythmic devices, such as one early on in the first of the concerto’s three moments where the woodwinds provide striking, warmly chordal counterpoint to a frenetic violin melody. The oboe tune that de Sarasate coveted appears in the opening of the second movement; it’s a pretty, nostalgic little melody, but nothing to match the complexity that Kawasaki had to deal with.

Toward the end, Kawasaki suddenly changed up his attack. He’d been playing with great precision, which is pretty much the only way to tackle this piece, but for one reason or another he suddenly dug in and let his phrasing blaze with a relaxed legato. At one point, he turned to conductor Barbara Yahr and smiled, as if to say, “Maestro, let’s drive this thing home.” Which they did. You can see the end coming a mile away, and the unbridled passion of the closing crescendo brought them in for a perfect landing.

At their most recent performance, the orchestra brought a remarkable joy and abandon to Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration. There’s a great deal of sturm und drang in Dmitri Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, and considering that it’s ultimately about revenge, it must be tempting to go for broke and crank it up. But Yahr didn’t, reining in the piece, emphasizing every subtlety in this brutally powerful, deeply personal and political masterpiece. Shostakovich waited almost a decade between his Ninth and this symphony, waiting for Stalin to die. When the tyrant finally gave up the ghost, the composer had this ready shortly thereafter. It’s both a requiem for the dead and a call to action, and contains a surprisingly brief musical portrait of Stalin. Considering that Shostakovich saw many of his contemporaries murdered or imprisoned under the Soviet regime, he certainly would have been within his rights to write up Stalin for every crime against humanity he ever committed. But Shostakovich doesn’t torture the audience with it: the tyrant is summarily dismissed as a tinpot dictator. The composer recognized the banality of evil when he saw it, several years before Hannah Arendt codified it. He was more concerned with the six million plus souls murdered during the reign of terror, screaming in unison through the violins in the first movement, over and over again, as the piece builds to a thundering swell.

Shostakovich didn’t spare the regime’s ridiculous pageantry, though: in addition to the Stalin portrait, the second movement is full of twisted, macabre martial themes. But there’s hope, a recurrent French horn motif that eventually takes center stage as the sketchy hustling and bustling of the army and the party apparat retreat to the outskirts of the melody. He could have easily made the final movement gleeful: it’s a celebration of Stalin’s death, with an encoded message, the horns emphasizing a D-E flat-C-B progression that in a combination of Italian and German musical notation spells out Shostakovich’s initials. The phrase repeats again and again, but not joyously: glad though Shostakovich was to be rid of his nemesis, he remained horror-stricken. Memo to dictators and other censorious types: never mess with a composer. They always get even in the end. May the regime in this country today never need a Shostakovich to document such grotesque inhumanity.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra likes theme programs. This one was “Triumphant.” The next is “Enduring,” on March 30 at 3 PM here featuring Sibelius’ famous Valse Triste in addition to pieces by Hindemith and Nielsen.

February 12, 2008 - Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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