Shostakovich’s personal expression of suffering anchors a fascinating program
By Peter Alexander
Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra and conductor Cynthia Katsarelis presented a concert last night in Boulder (Jan. 23) that deserved a far larger audience than it drew.
Perhaps it was the gloomy-sounding topic—music for and by victims of World War II—but the sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church was not quite half filled. Anyone who stayed away missed an extraordinary program and one exceptional performance.
The centerpiece and foundation of the program—and final work of the evening—was Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, op. 110, a string orchestra setting of the composer’s String Quartet No. 8. Dedicated to “the victims of fascism and war,” the Quartet is more than that; it is a personal expression of deep suffering, possibly a self-eulogy from a composer who was contemplating suicide.
The evidence of the composer’s real intent lies in the quotations from his own works scattered through the score—particularly works written under the oppressive yoke of Stalinism. The quartet’s most prominent theme, D-E-flat-C-B, is an anagram of his own name in German musical notation: DSCH.
As gloomy as that may sound, the Quartet No. 8 is one of Shostakovich’s greatest works, and one of the great string quartets of the 20th century. Last night’s performance was evocative, powerful and beautifully crafted. The unity of performance within the individual sections—corresponding to the four parts of the quartet—was remarkable, in pitch, in rhythm, in phrasing. Katsarelis led the performance with commitment and careful control of the quartet’s emotional flow.
The translation to a string orchestra changes the score in some ways. In the quartet version, the single instruments seem to represent individual voices crying out, a poignant reminder of both Shostakovich’s plight and the individual lives lost in the war. On the other hand, the added force of the orchestra version effectively conveys the weight of oppression. This is most notable with the fierce, pounding three-note motive representing the KGB and their feared late-night knock at the door. That motive, and the anguished passages that follow, were the most powerful moments of the concert.
While I am inclined to prefer the original version, because of its intimacy and because it was the composer’s first intention, last night’s performance made a strong case for the Chamber Symphony version as well. It was a performance to be remembered.
The rest of the program was creatively put together, with three pieces that complimented one another nicely: Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3; the world premiere of Life Between Lives by D.J. Sparr, loosely derived from the Bach; and the Study for String Orchestra by Pavel Haas, a genuine victim of the Second World War. Unfortunately, none of these works quite reached the heights of the Shostakovich.
The concert opened with the Bach Brandenburg. A delightful score, it was given a sprightly performance, but the church’s acoustics—about which I have complained before—made Bach’s sparkling counterpoint sound tubby and turgid. The closely spaced parts, especially in the lower register, just cannot be heard clearly in that space.
The use of the slow movement from Bach’s G-major Sonata for violin and harpsichord to fill out the Brandenburg’s enigmatic two-chord slow movement was an interesting choice, and one that worked well as it moved nicely into the key-defining chords.
Sparr’s Life Between Lives was composed for the Colorado Pro Musica and plays with the same instruments and textures as the Bach. It opens with mysterious chords, representing “Moment before Breath” (as the movement is titled), just before the beginning of life. This movement seems to recall Sparr’s performing career as an electric guitarist, with sounds resembling electric guitar effects transferred to strings.
Slow moving lines hovering within and above the often dissonant chords gradually accumulate, creating a dramatic sense of breath withheld. That texture soon becomes animated by pizzicato rhythms beneath the surface texture. This is the second movement, “Moment Before Thought,” but other than the pizzicato stirrings, the sound is very much like the first movement.
A sudden acceleration signals the last movement, “Life Between Lives,” where the increasing speed is created by a pulsing repetition of notes and chords, still within the same sound palette. The repetitive rhythms provide the only sense of direction, while the lack of contrast casts a pall of timbral monotony over the texture. There is an increase in intensity with an ascending line in the violins; and then the piece stops with, to my ear, no sense of arrival.
Ending the concert’s fist half was Haas’s Study for String Orchestra. A victim of the Nazis who was interned in the Terezín concentration camp and later killed at Auschwitz, Haas is known as part of the missing generation of German and Austrian Jewish musicians who perished in the Holocaust. The Study is a pleasant, entertaining work written under the most difficult of circumstances—in the camp, where it was premiered in 1943.
This is a work that, as Katsarelis has said, “speaks marvelously to the human spirit—and to the power of music.” The performance was on a very high level, especially the fugue that drives the piece to its end. That said, in spite of the work’s history, it is neither as profound nor as moving as the Shostakovich that ended the concert.
In the end, then, Katsarelis and the orchestra gave us a fascinating combination of composers and works, much to think about, some wonderful playing, and one great performance to be remembered.