Mindful, no doubt, of Daniel Wakin's April 7 New York Times article on late-seating policies at New York's concert halls, bright yellow signs stood in the Avery Fisher Hall lobby this afternoon, warning patrons that there would be no late seating for today's matinee, in which Valery Gergiev resumed his current Lincoln Center cycle of the complete Shostakovich symphonies. I posted about the two earlier performances, in which Gergiev led his Kirov Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, here and here. Today, the house band was the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, of which Gergiev has been the music director and chief conductor since 1995.
Gergiev has referred to his Dutch ensemble as one of the world's great "Russian orchestras." Judging by this performance, he may well be right: The group mustered properly tawny strings, winds that were by turns songful and sardonic, snarling brasses and militaristic percussion in the works it performed this afternoon -- two of the composer's most famous problem children, the Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4.
Titled "The First of May," the Symphony No. 3, from 1929, is a product of an early period in which Shostakovich may well have subscribed to his nation's revolutionary fervor. Although it's performed without pause (which necessitated those signs in the lobby, presumably), the work actually falls into four reasonably well delineated movements; as reported in Paul Schiavo's admirable program note, however, Shostakovich refused to repeat himself anywhere in this piece, which makes for a constantly disorienting torrent of sensations. Opening with a rustic clarinet solo, then a clarinet duet, the first section's disjointed melody and stormy march rhythm already bear striking resemblance to Shostakovich's mature works. In no time, the piccolo player is earning hazard pay for continuous, high-flying lines. Parade-band brass and drums pass a theme to strident winds, who forward it to a yelping clarinet section, and onward until it finally breaks apart.
A ruminative slow movement is interrupted by boozy trombone and (again) squealing piccolo. A bright scherzo introduces a broadly lyrical melody; a Straussian outburst for full orchestra leads into a series of stabbing chords underpinned by explosive percussion. Ascending lurches in the cellos and basses make way for a triumphant choral paean to May Day; this the Riverside Chorale delivered with stentorian declamation and an appropriately thick Slavic tone. Given the Third Symphony's strangeness, it's hardly surprising that the piece is seldom programmed, but Gergiev made as strong a case for its merits as any conductor could.
Shostakovich's career had reached an early high point when he began to write his Symphony No. 4 in 1934, but it wouldn't last. In 1936, when he was finishing the piece and preparing its premiere, Stalin took offense at the composer's jarringly racy opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. In short order, both that work and a ballet, The Limpid Stream, were famously censured in Pravda, the official Communist Party organ. No wonder, then, that Shostakovich decided to shelve his new symphony -- a massive, Mahlerian work that strained the limits of modernist acceptability -- in order to seek better means by which to preserve his position and well-being. (This he managed with the Symphony No. 5, which is on tomorrow night's bill.) The score for the Symphony No. 4 was presumably lost during the siege of Leningrad during World War II, but the piece was later reconstructed from its parts well after Stalin's death, and finally received its premiere in 1961.
Apart from its hourlong duration, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 4 is marked throughout with gestures borrowed from Mahler -- bird calls, folkish songs and dances, a funeral march near the end. And like his Austrian forebear, Shostakovich proves that he can score for massive forces while maintaining a remarkable degree of transparency; the work's tiny, isolated gestures are as telling as its most bombastic moments, which are explosive indeed. The biggest difference is a seeming lack of sentimentality in the young Russian's work; Shostakovich's music almost never smiles. As a result, the Symphony No. 4 is easy to admire, but more difficult to embrace.
If the low strings sounded somewhat blurry (as they had during the previous piece), this was countered by a razor-sharp precision in the violins, maintained even during the devilishly fast fugato section of the first movement. Concertmaster Kees Hülsmann gave a luminous rendition of the sweet violin solo that concludes the movement. Wind principals performed magnificently here and throughout, with special praise due to the English horn player, the principal flute, clarinet and bassoon, and certainly that overworked piccolo player. Individual brass players occasionally had a rough time, but the massed sections made for a furious roar. The Rotterdam percussionists neatly handled the ingenious ostinato that ends the middle movement.
In Shostakovich's brilliant final movement, a confluence of birdlike winds leads to a dreamy dance passage, then culminates in a massive upheaval driven by two timpanists and a tart brass chorale. The piece ends in ambiguous stillness, with a repeated pattern chimed on tinkling celeste; this, unfortunately, was disrupted by a jarring cell phone at the rear of the auditorium. (It was enough to make you actually appreciate Carnegie Hall's jarring new cell-phone-stifling announcement, now broadcast before both halves of a concert there.) All told, if the performance this afternoon fell a degree short of the sharp-edged ferocity Gergiev's Kirov players delivered last month, the Rotterdam Philharmonic still showed exceptionally well in two of Shostakovich's most problematic pieces.
Afterward, I headed downtown for the first concert of the fifth Tribeca New Music Festival, mounted by composer Preston Stahly's New York Art Ensemble in the cozy Flea Theater. (Performing on the set of a current Off Off Broadway production, the musicians seemed to be playing in someone's living room.) This evening's installment, titled "Generation-Y," was devoted to music by emerging composers in their 20s and 30s. The first work on the program, Michael Brown's Echoes of Byzantium, was inspired by Yeats's poem Sailing to Byzantium. A still, hushed opening based on Byzantine chant opened into a lush, modal reverie, confidently handled by violinist Wayne Lee and pianist Yalin Chi. Pieces of Things, by Matthew Briggs, presented an animated conversation for percussionists Gregory Landes and Dave Roth, who seemed to complete one another's sentences as they paired on marimbas, triangles, crotales, woodblocks and bongos. Briggs, a percussionist, writes boldly for his instrumentarium; some passages were clearly almost impossible to execute. Landes and Roth did an altogether laudable job of managing the composer's challenges.
Pianist-composer Sebastian Chang played six of his twelve Etudes for Piano, each of which was based not on a standard key signature, but rather on a trichord built on a root note and two additional pitches -- for example, the opening piece, "Soliloquy (025)," was based on a chord built from a root note, the note two pitches higher, and the note five pitches higher than that. Performing with no score and lights lowered, it was easy to imagine that Chang was freely improvising his six intricate miniatures, which summoned in equal measure impressions of Debussy, Prokofiev, Nancarrow and Keith Jarrett. Listening to his profusion of stream-of-consciousness melodies and counterpoint, you couldn't help but smile along with the performer as he visibly enjoyed his own prowess at tricky fingerings and cross-handed passages. Someone should pass along Chang's e-mail address to Lang Lang, quick.
Robert Farren's Climix "Redux" was something of a live remix of an earlier work for solo cello, performed here by violist Daniel Stewart as the composer tweaked his sound with an impressive array of vintage rock-guitar effect pedals and other implements. The manner in which these two players interacted onstage -- particularly the way Farren lurched and swooned as he punched buttons and turned knobs on a foot pedal -- was something you'd sooner expect to see during a set of improvised noise at Brooklyn's No Fun Fest; still, it was easy to discern the handsome contours of the composer's original conception, and the electronics added rich resonances.
The concert ended with the evening's most substantial piece, Judd Greenstein's Sonata for Cello and Piano. Performed by cellist Jody Redhage and pianist David Hanlon, the work was cast in three movements -- reportedly at the insistence of Greenstein's teacher at Yale, Martin Bresnick. The repeated melodic cells of the opening movement, subtitled "(sometimes I imagine)," hung in stasis, suggesting a sort of spiritual inertia. In the second movement, "(she is still)," surging triplets and sextuplets attempted to provoke some kind of development. Surprisingly, the finale resolved into a soulful gospel melody -- a boldly direct resolution for so mysterious a piece. Redhage demonstrated exceptional technical command in managing Greenstein's ghostly melodies, and Hanlon lent the piece a handsome flow. (You can hear two different performances of the piece by downloading MP3s from Greenstein's website, here.)
Dmitri Shostakovich - Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk - Galina Vishnevskaya, Nicolai Gedda, Dimeter Petkov, Ambrosian Opera Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Mstislav Rostropovich (EMI Classics)
Dmitri Shostakovich - Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4 - WDR Sinfonieorchester / Rudolf Barshai (Brilliant Classics)
Jackie McLean - New and Old Gospel (Blue Note)
Power Tools - Strange Meeting (Antilles)