“Pretty wild stuff,” said Esa-Pekka Salonen of the two early Shostakovich symphonies that formed the substance of the Philharmonic program two weeks ago, and pretty wild stuff they proved to be . . . wild, unruly and awful. If ever there were a case of inferior music surviving on the strength of its creator‘s eventual renown, the second and third symphonies form the perfect paradigm.
Yet there is a thread through these works that is worth our attention, and which the Philharmonic’s current journey along the Shostakovich legacy — which began with the First Symphony and the first three string quartets earlier last month (which I missed while wallowing in London‘s John Adams festival) — fills in the outline of an artist’s life unique for its interplay of light and darkness. Whether you accept the contrived “memoir” of Solomon Volkov‘s much-challenged Testimony — and I do not — the rises and falls of Shostakovich’s life as an artist are powerfully sketched in the music itself. It first takes shape with the cheeky energy and lyric power of the amazing First Symphony of the 19-year-old schoolboy, music as unbeholden to tradition or environment as, say, the song literature of Franz Schubert‘s adolescence. Then Russia is swept into a vortex of political optimism and creative energy: Pudovkin and Eisenstein’s films, Mayakovsky‘s poetry, the still-young Shostakovich. The next two symphonies virtually explode on the stage, with an undigested mass of naive patriotism and ambitious but clumsy dissonant counterpoint. The young composer has heard the music from the West — Schoenberg, jazz, Hindemith — and wants it all for himself as well.
Both symphonies had previously lain untouched by the Philharmonic, understandably so. Next should come the Fourth, which the orchestra has played (twice in my time here), but that has been postponed until next year. There is awfulness in this work, too — at twice the length of the Second or Third — but it is mitigated by a far firmer control of momentum; it will be worth revisiting. The popular Fifth turns up on February 20: presented not by Salonen, who has publicly declared his distaste for the work, but by a visiting Russian orchestra under Philharmonic auspices.
The First String Quartet dates from 1935, the year of the Fourth Symphony, but the Second came only 10 years later. Along with Alan Chapman’s splendid talk before the two symphonies, four Philharmonic members played the Second Quartet, an impossibly dreary work with an interminable set of academic variations as its finale. There, as with the symphonies, Shostakovich still had far to go. The last of the 15 quartets, consisting of nothing but slow movements breathing in and out with accents of pain and resignation, turns up at UCLA next month (March 20–23): the Emerson Quartet, with Britain‘s performance-art ensemble Complicite, in a complicity titled “Noise of Time.”
All this adds up to a rewarding excursion into the creative mind of one of the past century’s towering figures, whose greatest works still challenge our own imagination as they once did his. The memory of Shostakovich disturbs us all; what remains beyond challenge is this: In a country beset by turmoil, and during a time of further turmoil and redefinition worldwide, one composer chose to work within musical boundaries — symphony, string quartet, concerto — established generations before his time, and found new ways to give them meaning. However timid the Philharmonic planners may have been in the matter of Schoenberg, the Shostakovich inundation should be a sequence of delighted rediscoveries.
The Philharmonic‘s Green Umbrella concerts turned 20 last week, and two of their founders — Ernest Fleischmann, who started them and later dreamed up the cute title, and Bill Kraft, who led the first few years of concerts — were on hand at Zipper to bask in deserved applause. Later dignitaries — former composers-in-residence John Harbison and Steven Stucky and current superstar Esa-Pekka Salonen — were there as well, and all four composers conducted music of their own. What’s remarkable about these concerts isn‘t merely the strength of their service to important new music, although the program booklet’s five-page, double-column, fine-print list of repertory is itself staggering; it‘s the fact that they still exist. Other orchestras — the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony most notably — have tried similar ventures and closed them down within a year or two.
There was an interesting subtext to last week’s concert. Bill Kraft‘s Double Trio of 1966 was the earliest music on the program, and also the most abrasive — beautifully made out of interrelations between dissimilar groups of instruments, but gritty and unwelcoming even so. Harbison’s 1997 Concerto, in which oboe and clarinet wound silken ribbons around each other and around a string ensemble, tended by comparison to sit on your lap and tickle your ears. So did Stucky‘s brand-new Etudes for, of all things, solo recorder and ensemble, with Michala Petri’s burbling solos the kind of music you never want to end. Finally there was Salonen‘s Five Images After Sappho, already familiar from previous performances and the new Sony recording, its long lyric lines sung, once again, by the exquisite Laura Claycomb. I won’t finger this one program as proof that all music is heading toward a state of C major; all four works included, among their other graces, a high regard for a listener‘s intelligence. So much was this the case, in fact, that the memory of that night still lingers.
Curious indeed is the Los Angeles Opera’s latest offering, which runs through this weekend: Bach‘s B-minor Mass, sublime in its very abstractness, and the staging (!) designed and directed by Germany’s Achim Freyer in what is listed as his American debut. (Not quite; he designed, but did not direct, the New York City Opera‘s Moses und Aron of 1990, whose ravishment also lingers in the memory.) The music, performed by just-okay German soloists with the L.A. Opera’s own orchestra and chorus, is conducted by Peter Schreier. The staging is vintage Freyer: shadows and silhouettes surrounded by scrims on which various graffiti — Leonardo here, Saul Steinberg there — come and go. The nine members of the “Achim Freyer Ensemble” move through shadows, and occasionally interlock arms and legs to create optical tricks — mostly very slow. The counterpoint between light and dark is lovely to behold; the counterpoint between what you see and what you hear is something you have to work out for yourselves. There are concurrences now and then, but not often: the “Crucifixus,” as a line of slowly slogging figures is engulfed by darkness; the “Et resurrexit,” as a stage full of supine figures rise slowly and in obvious pain against the dancing exuberance of the music.
Robert Wilson does this sort of staging too, and has had practically no recognition for it in this country — least of all in Los Angeles. Yet here is Freyer, brought over with great hoopla. I love some of his work: the Philip Glass Akhnaten that I saw in Stuttgart and his Satyagraha on video, and a thrilling Der Freischutz on video that he will re-create in San Francisco two years from now. This one doesn‘t work.