NSO’s Shostakovich 1

featuring guest conductor Michiyoshi Inoue and harpist Xavier de Maistre

This is a first for me, and for a few others in my (very small) entourage this evening.

For me, it’s a first to hear Shostakovich’s first in person, and for them, it was the first visit to our National Concert Hall.

It was also one of the few concerts for which I considered just showing up for the second half. I wouldn’t miss Shosty’s works no matter what else was on the program, but it was one of those occasions when you’re either unsure of the continuity of the program and what you’ll be hearing, and hopefully just trust that the music director or guest conductor has made solid program choices. That being said, the only piece I could really vouch for on the program was the final one, whence comes the title of the concert.

The full program is as below:

YASUSHI AKUTAGAWA: Musica per Orchestra Sinfonica
JOAQUIN RODRIGO: Concierto de Aranjuez
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH: Overture on Russian and Kyrgyz Folk Themes
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 1

All the music on the program dates from the 20th century, and the real oddball is Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo’s 1939 work (originally for guitar) Concierto de Aranjuez, which doesn’t have the clear association to Shostakovich’s style that the Akutagawa piece did, but there are connections to political elements in his work. Anyway…

The Akutagawa piece was fantastic, honestly. From the mid 20th century, it takes a few whole pages right out of the books of Shostakovich or Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and I was pleased to see after the piece (in two movements) was over that the program notes indeed mention the Japanese composer’s connection to the Soviet Bloc and influence from Russian composers. It’s a cinematic-sounding work, with rhythmic interest and bombast, a very interesting piece, from a composer whose name I’d never even heard of, to begin the program.

Xavier de Maistre comes out for the second work, and in the shuffle, Inoue loses his podium and the harpist gets one, leaving the conductor standing on the stage with plenty of room to move, most of which he uses. (He’s quite a character, making faces at the audience, and quite happy to drink in the applause showered upon them after each piece.)

The Rodrigo concerto, be it harp or guitar, must contend with the reality that neither instrument has as big a voice as almost any other solo instrument, so the orchestra shrunk considerably, and played a very well-defined accompanying role, almost in a chamber fashion, to leave a wide berth for the harp to do its thing. As a result, the work, certainly in comparison to Akutagawa’s piece, was largely subdued, but magical and sumptuous in what it presented, and Maistre’s performance was at the very least incredibly charming. I can’t comment on technical details, but it seemed nothing short of pristine, which I suppose one would expect from a former member of the Vienna Philharmonic (and the first French one).

Maistre gave us two encores and eventually had to wave goodbye to bring an end to the applause so graciously given him by what was a really sparse crowd. Then it was intermission.

The second half gave us Shostakovich. I found myself thoroughly pleased with the first half of the program, and excited to hear our Russian comrade. Shostakovich’s Overture is apparently very little played, and as exciting and colorful and exceedingly Russian as it is, seems like one of those things, like the far more famous Festive Overture, that he could churn out on a lunch break. There’s very little of the thing that makes his work so powerful, the sarcasm and tragedy and rawness about it, but it’s a delightful, fun piece, as a warm-up to the composer’s first symphony, perhaps one of the greatest first symphonies in the repertoire.

I can only comment on Inoue’s reading of the final piece, it being the only one with which I’m familiar enough to do so. My go-to recordings of this work would be those from Järvi, Barshai, or Rostropovich, and Inoue’s reading was thrillingly true to the nature and spirit of the piece. The first movement is marked by dark humor and wit that are slowly replaced by something more menacing as we navigate through the scherzo and slow movement, and Inoue presented these very effectively. The orchestra played wonderfully. I was most impressed by members of the brass, with the horn and trumpet solos by our familiar faces that were executed very well, but overall everyone seemed to be in top form.

Inoue is clearly quite a colorful person, with oodles of personality, and looks like Eschenbach from behind. I wouldn’t hate having him as our music director, especially with his adoration for Mahler and Shostakovich (apparently). All in all, an interesting program, well played and excellently presented. I’m not sure what it was about the concert that killed the ticket sales, but you picky folks missed a good one, for sure. See you next week for Stefan Dohr!

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