NSO’s From Schubert to Shostakovich

featuring Gábor Boldoczki, trumpet; Oleg Caetani, guest conductor

or The Concert Formerly Known as ‘Who Is Afraid of Shostakovich?’

It’s a goal of some devoted (or just geeky) concertgoers to ‘collect them all’, to attend live performances of all symphonies from a specific composer. I’m coming up on doing so with Beethoven (only 4 and 8 remain) and Mahler (only no. 8 left), and even those might be taken care of soon.

But Shostakovich wrote  more symphonies than either of them did, and I still haven’t had a chance to hear the epic seventh. Tonight, though, I was able to check another of his fifteen off my list. It was, in fact, the fifteenth and final symphony from Shostakovich’s pen, from only a few years before he died. That was actually the only thing I remembered about this concert program until I was reminded of what else would be playing.

It’s an interesting program, certainly, and before attending, I wasn’t entirely sure what could possibly tie these works together. I’m a huge fan of abstract threads that connect things, whether as meditations on an obscure influence or common ground, or otherwise, but I wasn’t sure what that could possibly be. This was also complicated by the interesting and inquisitive former concert title Who Is Afraid of Shostakovich? The movie that that title references is one of the greatest films ever made, but for a program idea, it seemed odd.

First on the agenda was Schubert’s third symphony. Most all of his symphonies live in the shadow of the Unfinished eighth and astounding ninth, but they are all really very nice works. Second was Penderecki’s trumpet concerto, which recalls trumpet-centered works we heard about this time last year, like Shostakovich’s first piano concerto (yes, it has a trumpet soloist) and Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Nobody Knows de Trouble I See, a concerto for trumpet, played by Reinhold Friedrich. That concert also featured Shostakovich’s first jazz suite. And actually, from the date on that article, was almost exactly a year ago. Wow. Could that have been planned? Surely not.

In any case, those were the three works on the program, and I was not only eager to hear them, but interested to see what argument could be made for putting these three works on the same concert under that name. And then I see the updated title, which helped a bit.

Oleg Caetani’s name is familiar, and I swear he’s been around recently, but I (or WordPress) can’t find in any of my concert reviews where his name appears. In any case, it was a really low turnout tonight, and apparently the administration expected it, for the upper floor of the auditorium wasn’t even open or sold. The first floor of the concert hall (confusingly referred to as the second floor [of the building, which it is]) was mostly populated by a few clumps of high school students (middle school? high school…) for some field trip or class event of some kind, and I must say, they were mighty well behaved.


Of the three pieces on the program, Schubert is by far the least intimidating or challenging of the evening. His third symphony isn’t the one of the early five that I’d pick but they’re all nice. The NSO’s playing was on point, if not maybe the slightest bit unsure, but I think that lies mostly in Caetani’s hands. I felt his Schubert was a bit Romanticized, and maybe even a touch soggy. Granted, maybe I’m just used to listening recordings like Marriner’s, but there wasn’t as much snap as I’d hope for, or zip, or whatever you’d like to call it. The trio of the third movement, for example, felt draggy and plodding, where I want it to feel light and airy, contrasting but never letting up on the energy that’s built up. Call it personal preference; I’m not really criticizing, but whatever my preference for Schubert is, I’d say it was by far the least exciting thing on the program.

Penderecki’s name still may strike fear into those who know enough about modern music to recognize it. I know who he is, and he’s kind of been off on a to-do list of mine for ages. Music people who identify his name likely associate him with something like this:

But that’s a work from 1960, in a time where he was at his most daring and adventurous (or so I’m told). Today’s concerto, in four small, unbroken movements, only lasts about twelve minutes in performance, but it packs a punch. It is everything, and has everything. It’s expressive, abstract, colorful, modern, tender, crunchy, a really sensational, jaw-dropping piece, for trumpet or otherwise. It is not just a work to showcase the soloist, for whom this work was written, I understand, but an expressive, powerful work, that conveys something powerful of human existence in less than a quarter of an hour. Boldoczki begins offstage, so the conductor walks out to applause and gives the downbeat, leaving us all wondering where our soloist is until we hear an offstage trumpet. From offstage, he walks to a stand behind the second violins, where he stays for a short period of time also, and by the second minute of the piece he’s finally where a soloist is expected to be for a concerto, with a cornet and assortment of mutes at his side.

He played the piece with an almost annoying effortlessness, delicate, precise, and a warmth and richness of sound like I’ve never heard from the instrument, as lyrical and buttery as one would expect, oh, say, an oboe to be. The work calls for all sorts of… head space, from the standpoint of expression. It’s not all dissonance and chaos, nor is it all just virtuosic blabber. The piece was written for Boldoczki, but he still had his music on a stand. The orchestra, too, as well as Caetani, all seemed very much in sync, like playing a piece that’s been in the repertoire much longer than only a couple of years. It was absolutely stupendous, and before I’d heard the Shostakovich, I knew the Polish piece was the highlight of the evening. He gave a local tune as an encore.

After the intermission, there was only one piece on the program, Shostakovich’s final symphony. There is something final about a composer’s last symphony. Think of Beethoven, of Mahler, of Bruckner, Dvorak, and a few others, but for most of them, that last symphony wasn’t the last thing they wrote. At least it wasn’t for Mahler’s ninth, anyway.

The Shostakovich is an odd piece in many ways, but also a piece that typifies many of the things Shostakovich did throughout his career: the sarcasm and stark contrast of humor and darkness, quotations of or allusions to himself or others’ works, as well as incorporating motifs representing people into pieces. All here. But this isn’t about the work itself. Things are really quite normal until the finale, and large sections of the symphony are really solid, textbook Shostakovich, and the orchestra played it so. It’s not a piece I’m very familiar with (at all), but I’d say it felt more satisfying than the Schubert did; I knew the sound of a dissonant violin solo, growling brass, snarky percussion, and it was all played well, to my ear. Maybe I just don’t have it under my belt enough to appreciate it, but the conclusion of the work seems just a bit…..

Exactly. Anyway, I made sure to rat out some jackass who tried (so poorly) to hide a video camera in his jacket and filmed the whole damn concert, but I only noticed in the second half. Was it loud? No, of course not. Did it affect anyone else? Not really. It’s simply the idea, the principle of disrespecting the concert hall, and I couldn’t think of any situation or reason that would make me think that it was acceptable. It’s stealing. So I ratted him out and left. Dunno if anything can be done about it, but it’s the principle of it that gets under my skin. And the fact that his young son was there watching his father be piece of trash in public. Good example, papa.

Anyway, maybe there was an autograph signing afterward, but I doubt it. It would actually have been one I might have waited in line for, because the Penderecki work and its performance, from soloist to conductor and ensemble, was truly superb. One of the first things I did when I got home was purchase the album, also because it has Fazıl Say’s trumpet concerto on it, and he’s a dude who I want to hear more from.

So that’s that, folks. April is almost over, and there’s not but a handful of concerts left before this season is over and we’re all going to have to scrape by on whoever visitors grace us with their presence over the summer, but I do know there are good things coming in the new season, from multiple people, and I am looking very forward to it.


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