Shostakovich and his symphony secrets

Centennial of Russian composer's birth offers chance to delve into his work

September 24, 2006|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,[SUN MUSIC CRITIC]

Only a handful of composers in the 20th century reached the kind of artistic heights that measured greatness in previous eras -- creating undisputed masterworks in genre after genre, gaining the admiration of music lovers from one generation to the next.

Dmitri Shostakovich belongs to that select group.

Born in St. Petersburg a century ago tomorrow, Shostakovich remains a subject of fascination and respect 31 years after his death in Moscow.

He continues to speak to us, sometimes in the clearest and most direct of voices, sometimes through a veil that leaves us wondering exactly what might be behind the notes.

His music is unmistakably, proudly Russian in character, yet only rarely nationalistic in the baser sense of the word.

It is just as unmistakably, proudly tonal in style. Though Shostakovich lived through political revolution, he never went near the musical revolution and experimentation that drew in so many of his contemporaries in the West.

Although Shostakovich could write pieces full of light and wit and charm, the overriding quality in his creative output is a deep seriousness. This is a composer of conviction. And truth.

"Feelings of love, hate, happiness, fear, sadness -- they are the same everywhere," says Maxim Shostakovich, the composer's son, by phone from St. Petersburg.

"Like in all great art of previous centuries, my father's music deals with those human feelings," he says. "I think people understand great art, maybe not directly. But, on some level, they can understand the feeling behind it."

Pianist and conductor Maxim Shostakovich, 68, is scheduled to conduct a program of his father's music tomorrow night in St. Petersburg with the city's famed St. Petersburg Philharmonic.

The music director of that orchestra, Yuri Temirkanov, also 68 and an old friend of Maxim Shostakovich, will contribute to the centennial observances this week and next, leading Shostakovich-filled concerts with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, his first as music director emeritus.

And, in November, Mstislav Rostropovich, 79, a good friend of the composer's (and the composer's son and Temirkanov, for that matter), will be in Washington as music director laureate of the National Symphony Orchestra in all-Shostakovich programs.

That's just a small portion of what is a global acknowledgement of the composer this season. Not that the world needed an excuse to program his music.

Shostakovich has never really gone out of favor, certainly not in the West. To be sure, in his homeland, the composer fell out of official favor more than once, so much so that he feared for his life. But those who concerned themselves only with the art of music were hardly swayed by tastes of the Soviet government.

Also speaking from St. Petersburg (through his translator), Temirkanov says that the popularity of Shostakovich "among the Russian people has, so far, remained always the same."

Maxim Shostakovich agrees. "There is a big interest in my father's music and his creativity in Russia today," he says. "Lots of books have come out. The attention is very good."

But with a new Russian generation growing up after the end of the Soviet state, it is possible that the music of a man who lived his whole creative life under that system (in more ways than one) may mean something different now.

"There aren't any horrors for the young people today, as there were for my generation," Temirkanov says. "They know about the horrors of the past, because they probably read about it, but I don't know if they get it. I don't know if the younger generation really gets Shostakovich."

Messages in music

What to "get" in Shostakovich has always been a matter of some debate.

Like all music, his can be heard on strictly abstract terms, a thing of notes and dynamics and tempos and structures. But, almost from the start, the composer's work was recognized by many to be something much more than that, something full of messages.

What those messages mean depends on the listener and the era. Just when you think you have an interpretation all figured out, you may have to re-think it. Something that sounded exultant can suddenly seem ironic, even bitter. Something that sounded straightforward and agenda-free can suddenly seem confrontational, even subversive.

"It is difficult to label music as political or not political," Temirkanov says. "But you can say that Shostakovich was a historian in his music. He was like Pimen [the chronicling monk in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.]"

Maxim Shostakovich echoes that point. "My father's music was like a mirror held up to his own time. It reflects what happened around him."

And so much happened.

From the almost sassy young composer who wowed everyone with his brilliantly colored first symphony in 1926, Shostakovich seemed to become a politically correct servant of the state, happy to supply music that reflected Soviet ideals.

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