It was the Russian poet Pushkin, if my memory serves me correctly, and it is serving me less and less correctly with each passing day, who told the tale of the Barbarian Artist. This oaf happily daubed black paint all over an exquisite work of art. But as the carelessly daubed paint cracked and flaked away, the exquisite work of art re-emerged, untarnished, in all its glory.
This is precisely what Dimitri Shostakovich knew he had to do with his next composition or face torture, starvation and death in Stalin’s Gulag.
He had committed the sin of straying from Social Realism, writing a modern, scandalous opera – Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – that had delighted his audience with a two-year run but infuriated Stalin, who denounced it in the newspaper Pravda.
Hastily withdrawing his Fourth Symphony, which he knew would get him shot on the spot, he set about creating his 5th. He scrubbed all the modern dissonances from his musical palette and in unvarnished simplicity he told the story of human life on this planet in all its stark, pitiful raw reality of tragedy and the furious triumph that overcomes everything. They wanted Social Realism? Hang on to this.
It was performed July 11th in McMaster’s Wilson Hall by the National Academy Orchestra in the Brott Festival’s first Connoisseur Classics concert.
Brott’s apprentice conductor the young maestro Trevor Wilson leaped onto the podium like a tiger and began to lash the music out of this superb and equally young orchestra.
My reaction was “hang on, you’ve got two movements to go (Brott himself would direct the final two movements). You’ll have nothing left for the real storms to come,” but the bit was in their teeth and away they went and they never once flagged.
At the end of the 5th’s debut performance in Russia, the crowd rose to its feet, many weeping openly, and gave the work a 40 minute standing ovation. Even the dullest Party hack knew Shostakovich had won the day, so they daubed a fanciful “program” all over the work, forcing it into a specious fairy tale of suffering relieved by the coming of glorious Communism etc. etc. Of course, this dried and began to flake off and when it was safe to do so Shostakovich denounced his own masterpiece, saying how he hadn’t buckled to the ogre’s whim but had fooled them all with a triumph that was false.
Sorry Dimitri, I have searched your sublime masterpiece and I can’t find a single fraudulent bar. I rest my case with the work’s enduring popularity while the atonal works of the other schools lie scattered in their several graves unheard.
I’ve heard, too, that this performance by the National Academy was a just blaring uproar. Not so. Wilson Hall is an intimate space. Brott himself said of it that it was so intimate that “you can almost reach out and touch the music.”
Well, Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony is not a nice, polite piece of chamber music. It is an emotional juggernaut. It sets out to rip you to shreds. You are not 100 yards from the trombones in any second balcony in Wilson Hall. It’s like sitting in the orchestra yourself and the young Turks in this orchestra, whether directed like a cleansing fire by the brilliant Wilson or with profound insight by the master Brott, they are going to render unto Shostakovich what is Shostakovich’s and if they see he says he wants it fortissimo, well, here they come. I found it an exhilarating and profoundly moving experience.
There was a lovely, joyful piece on the program too.
Dvorak’s cello concerto. It was the second work Dvorak composed while in America. His first was, of course, the New World Symphony and they are kindred pieces. One almost kept an ear cocked for Coming Home the signature tune of the symphony. Cellist Rachel Mercer was delightful as the soloist. She is a renowned chamber musician and showed us why.
The evening opened with Bottlenecked a piece that limns the life, times and fate of a single drop of water.
It’s by Spy Denomme-Welch and Catherine Magowen who founded Unsettled Scores and Indie[n] Rights Reserve so we knew we were in for a proper scolding.
There was a video of the pair explaining the work to begin but obscure it is not. We follow the drop from the pizzicato patter of rain, down the swooshing Grand River in a very tuneful and pleasant pastiche of musical effects. The Extracting and Processing, of course, leads to bottling and at this point Maestro Brott picks up a toy till, rings up the sale and well, the piece is over and sip, the point is made and well taken.
-Hugh Fraser, former Hamilton Spectator Music Critic