NSO: Symphonic Milestone- Reflections on War

Back to symphony hall less than a week since Eroica for another fantastic performance, again conducted by Maestro Gunther Herbig.

The title ‘Reflections on War’ (slightly different in Chinese: 烽火蕭八) was eye-catching. I read somewhere in a program or website for the concert that it was to commemorate the 70th anniversary of World War II. Before reading up on Liszt’s Les Preludes, I wouldn’t have seen or heard or thought of any association with war, but it was an interesting contrast, in many ways.
The program was also heavily weighted toward the second half, obviously. While Shostakovich’s eighth is a massive work (although slightly less massive than one or two of his others), because of the relative brevity of the first half, it was over quite early.
Liszt’s Les Preludes has a lot going for it. It marked the world’s first piece to be given the title ‘symphonic poem,’ is by some accounts the most popular of the composer’s thirteen works in the genre, refers to a Lamartine poem (perhaps only in name), and has some tenuous relationship with actual symphonic form in its contrasting sections, just not movements. There’s lots of discussion about this piece and what it means/represents, etc. but this isn’t the time to talk about that.
It was a charismatic performance of the piece, and while the title Les Preludes sounds nothing like a war piece, the music itself is nearly unmistakably warlike at times. It has its contrasts, and the NSO under Herbig (unsurprisingly) did a splendid job of realizing both the roaring, warlike passages as well as the beautiful pastoral scenes. The piece felt like a triumph. We got the multiple walk-outs and ovation and applause the conductor and his performers basking in the glory of a mildly surprisingly not-packed hall, and that was only the first half.
It was certainly the lighter half, in both mood and scale. The intermission was as long as the first half of the program, and there were some people who knew people and some shifting of seats, with the exception of the balding, combed-over man in front of me whose head perfectly obscured
the cellos. At least there were no kids anywhere to be seen. Except for the two late high school, early college boys that sat a seat over from me; the one of them insisted on trying to conduct the whole time, and I’m not sure if he was just way ahead of (and off) the beat, or trying to mimic Herbig’s exact gestures as he saw them, but regardless, he failed, and was incredibly distracting. I wanted so badly to tell him to sit on his hands or in the corner where people wouldn’t see him flick his wrists in his lap, because he was supremely annoying, but he was also extremely excited to be there and very attentive, which was more endearing than the attempt at conducting was annoying.
In any case, I managed (halfway through Shostakovich) to find a way to sit with my head leaning on my hand and block my peripheral vision enough not to see his imprecise flailings without looking like I was shielding my vision.
Note to self: add ‘don’t conduct from your seat’ to the list of no-nos for concertgoers. Moving on to Shostakovich.
I have to say, any complaints or issues I have with the performance are not with the NSO’s performance of the piece. It was spectacular. I’d listened to Shostakovich’s eighth at least once before this concert, and the first movement itself is complex and gripping and very Shostakovich. Most of the repertoire I’ve heard them perform in the past has been German stuff: Schoenberg, Mahler, Wagner, Bruch, Beethoven, that sort of thing. Their Slavonic series (obviously) is more along these lines, but even they still flirted much more with Romanticism: Dvorak and Janáček and some of the rest.
Anyway, the Shostakovich was the most outside of that realm that I’d heard of theirs, and it was intense. It was also the most head-scratching piece of music I’ve ever heard live. Perhaps I should say it’s the most head-scratching symphony I’ve ever heard. I’ve been to a few really modern concerts here with stuff like Ferneyhough and Murail on the program.
Shostakovich’s piece, even in it’s lighter moments, is unrelenting. It’s generally violent, hard, and heavy. Even in the lighter, delicate places, like the incredibly-performed cor anglais solo, the towering, even evil moments of the symphony overshadow it and put it into a frightening context. There’s no mistaking this piece as war music. Again, I don’t want to discuss the piece itself here, but it’s hard not to. What was most perplexing about it was the general structure, at a more removed listen. It’s difficult to digest in one go, gathering the relationships between subjects, catching the quotes from previous symphonies (5 and 7) and the general layout of the whole piece. Those towering crescendos with the snare between them are exhausting, as is the piece itself. I don’t see it as any sort of ad astra per aspera piece; I don’t hear any hope in it at all, and I was exhausted by the time it was finished. It was a spectacle to see live, and a privilege, but something I’m going to have to go back and digest later.
The most interesting thing to me was the different perceptions or portrayals of the idea of war. Liszt’s piece portrayed it (perhaps not intentionally) (or I interpreted it) as something valiant, noble, a worthy cause, for the greater good type of thing, the ideal portrayed in the kind of Romantic-era version superhero, men fighting for their country and having good morals and standing for what is right. That sort of thing.
Shostakovich tears all of that down. He shows us the other side of the coin: the destruction of humanity, war-torn countries, starving families, oppressed peoples, but an undying determination to keep existing.
Neither of these pieces are necessarily about World War II (Liszt’s for obvious reasons), and while Shostakovich wrote his eighth symphony in the midst of one of the darkest periods in human history, his nation had seen plenty of tragedy and turmoil before then.
In any case, I made the comment about the piece being perplexing. It’s perplexing from a musical perspective: the underlying structure, use of the different subjects and themes, etc. What is NOT perplexing or ambiguous in any manner is what the piece is conveying. There is barely a single place to breathe in the piece; even the more beautiful moments are marked by an unsettling feeling of impending gloom.
A friend asked me how the concert was, and I said I was exhausted. In the way he asked the question he implied that I must have enjoyed the concert, or something about its beauty, and I thought, ‘no.’ Something that many people don’t get about classical music (as I’ve said before) is that it isn’t all lily fields and prancing bunny rabbits and powdered wigs. Sometimes it is searing, intense and heavy, the exact opposite of something enjoyable or beautiful. After all, the title of the concert was ‘Reflections on War.’ The friend was puzzled by this title, but there’s no mistaking Shostakovich’s symphony for anything but the most raw of tragedy. Even the word tragedy may carry the slightest tinge of a literary hero, some poetic nature, but no. The only heroes in this case are the survivors.
I left the concert hall with a thought bubble above my head that felt almost visible:

“History repeats itself.”
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