NSO’s Shostakovich: His Humor and Seriousness

A concert review.

What a fantastic program.

Also, I think I’m going to stop including “concert review” in the titles of my concert reviews. Isn’t it obvious? Should be. Just added that first line there. The titles get too long sometimes. And there’s a local premiere in the mix.

In any case, wonderful programming! To walk out and see the Maestro 呂紹嘉 not on a podium was the classical music equivalent to him walking out in flip flops. He still had coat tails and all the rest, but no podium, no tuning, just a downbeat to begin Shosty’s first jazz suite.

I must have heard this before, both of them, because I have some impression of it, but it still struck me as quite new. Steel (or maybe just electric?) guitar and saxophones don’t make it on stage much, especially in such a small, intimate ensemble. This is clearly the humorousness referred to in the title of the concert.

It’s sometimes surprising to come off hearing a Shosty symphony (5, 7, 8, 10 for example) that’s so heavy and emotionally charged and then turn around and listen to the Festive Overture or a work like this and wonder, are these palate-cleansing getaways from the severity of much of his other music, or is there a similar (yet perhaps very successfully-veiled) sarcasm or satire in works like the jazz suite? It’s so…. carefree and almost humorous as to be unsettling. Is it concert music? Is it jazz? Is it chamber? Sudden images of Hawaiian shirts and tropical cocktails wash over the concert hall when guitar and trombone take the spotlight in the foxtrot third movement. One almost has to laugh. We’re in a Chinese-speaking nation listening to an orchestra perform a Russian composer’s jazz-influenced work. Cool, right? But as free-feeling and jazz inspired as the piece is, there’s something uneasy about it; perhaps it’s just the knowledge that…. it’s like the moment the piece ends, the moment the reel of Shostakovich’s life turns (back) to hell. He had it rough. Splendid, slick performance by our performers for the first work, many of them (guitar and sax players) not regular members. Bravi.

Next was Bernd Alois Zimmerman’s Nobody Knows de Trouble I See trumpet concerto. LA Phil’s program notes are here. It fits very nicely with the Shostakovich, and our soloist for the evening was Reinhold Friedrich, who is a commanding and exciting presence on stage. Big, large man, with attention-getting hair, energy and passion for the music. He gave his area a quick once over as if to make sure he’d have enough room to dance or engage with the space, and couldn’t stop himself from giving a gesture or head nod or response to the music here and there when he wasn’t performing, which wasn’t much time.

The only two trumpet concertos I’ve ever heard live were both not Haydn or anything else maybe more traditional. I heard Håkan Hardenberger play Rolf Wallin’s Fisher King trumpet concerto sometime last year, and now Zimmerman. I must say, while it isn’t a comment to either of the performers, I enjoyed Zimmerman’s work much more. Friedrich was intense and focused and impassioned, engaging and a joy to watch. Zimmerman’s music was the perfect bridge between the Shostakovich works that bookended the program, the most tragic jazz music you’ll ever hear, a piece of post-war struggle and tragedy and darkness with an almost shockingly ironic facade of jazz. It’s an incredible sound-world (if that phrase isn’t the music version of the awful but irreplaceable culinary term ‘mouthfeel’) that begged you to listen, needs to get a story off its chest but is still maybe just a bit too afraid to have to relive it in the process. Friedrich’s only encore was a wildly fun and intense piece that he strutted over to the piano and the woman behind it to perform. Even the piano accompaniment was pretty intense, and it was a casual but fun and engaging gesture to have an encore like that. He walked out three times to drag the (seemingly very shy) pianist to the front of the stage to take her bows. It was endearing, and very enjoyable. In fact, when the piece ended and the audience broke out into applause, he mouthed a ‘wow’ to the audience. He raised his trumpet in his fists above his head to the audience as if in triumph or victory, not reveling in self-glory, but seemingly as if he had succeeded in making the audience happy, as if he’d been worried he wouldn’t do justice to the work. It was endearing, too.

I could spend as much time as it takes to perform Shosty ten to talk about the performance of the work and a small army of rude, disrespectful, out-of-place children whose parents/teachers should be at least mildly ashamed and embarrassed for not training/paying attention to them better. Soapbox comments about unruly children aside, the NSO’s reading of this massive war symphony was flesh-searingly, heart-wrenchingly engaging. It’s a reminder, hearing a piece as massive as this live, that Shostakovich is easily one of the greatest symphonists to have graced the concert hall with his presence. For such a massive work with such dramatic extremes of emotion and sound, all 55-ish minutes of it hold together extremely well. There are terrifying moments of almost unbearable frenetic energy (the second movement), massive towering heights of full-orchestra roars with screaming horns, but also a plethora of tiny, exposed, delicate solos, from flute or piccolo, clarinet, bassoon, horn, making the scope of this work all the more expansive. As with Mahler, it takes a unifying vision of the work as a whole to connect all the dots, management of the highs and lows, deliberate laying out and placement of tension, maintaining energy, and also just not being tired. The ultimate result of the performance was that I’d love to hear a hell of a lot more Shostakovich from the NSO. Any of the concertos, the first symphony (!) the fourth; I haven’t ever heard 5 or 7 live, number nine (!). Tonight’s performance was engaging, convincing, and even as a listener, a bit exhausting, but to me, that means it was effective, compelling. But I’m a sucker for big ol’ symphonies. There’s a big season coming up this fall, the NSO’s thirtieth anniversary. Let’s get some big ol’ symphonies on the program: Bruckner 9, Mahler 8 (or Das Lied or 10), Turangalila, Brian’s Gothic (can you even imagine?), or anything from Robert Simpson… Anyway, I’m just really excited to see what we have to look forward to for the upcoming season.

Bravi!

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