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Dmitri and Me

By Brett Campbell
April 1, 2013
Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich


In Portland, much of March was devoted to the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, who has been firmly established in the canon of classical music for quite awhile now. Many of my fellow composers, of all ages, tell me how enthusiastic they are about his work. So I feel it’s time to make an admission. I am not a Shostakovich fan.

Not that I’ve ever thought the renowned 20th century Russian composer was untalented, or incapable of greatness. In my formative years, I enjoyed learning to play various short piano works of his, and as a Mahler devotee from an early age I highly approved of Dmitri’s obvious admiration for the older composer. But it was the Cold War, and my musical heart was warm. When not carried away by the passionate strains of Mahler, I harked back to an even earlier love and luxuriated in the hedonism of Debussy and Ravel. If I was overtaken by a bout of Russian-style melancholia, the self-indulgent Rachmaninov beckoned. And if I ever cared to look beyond, there was the uncompromising serialism then so beloved by my oldest brother and father figure, the composer Walter Winslow. In those days his opinion of Shostakovich was crushingly dismissive, even though he could read and speak Russian and had traveled in the Soviet Union.

But we lived a soft life in our pastoral surroundings, our tall firs and spreading oaks, inspired by views of snowy volcanoes to the east. What experience did we have of oppression, of civil war, of grand (and not so grand) experiments in government by ideologues? Of plots, purges and denunciations? Of friends and relatives who disappeared in the night, never to be seen again? None, of course. It was easy to fall back on aesthetic arguments: you can’t evoke boredom with boring music, oppression with oppressive music, mindless bureaucracy with mindless music. We soon tired of what seemed to us just musical versions of one-trick circus bears.

Many years later, I went to a Chamber Music Northwest concert which happened to include his op. 67 Piano Trio, written in 1944. I knew nothing about it, but I figured I could manage to sit through to the next piece. Imagine my amazement when its dark power eclipsed everything else on the program, so much so that my resulting curiosity about the last page of the piano score, which had been left on the piano at intermission, aroused the suspicion of a none-too-polite stagehand.

The obvious homage paid at the beginning to the most ethereal parts of the final Adagio of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony no doubt drew me in, and the personal, confiding tone of the work, free of official bluster and defensive irony, seduced me completely. A harmony fiend from an early age, I listened in rapt attention to the multiple rounds of the Largo chorale like a charmed cobra withholding its poisonous judgement. And when—after the heartbreaking return of the work’s opening theme near the end, over a piano filigree sparkling like jewelry hastily abandoned by a vanished people—and after the spectral reprise of the finale’s desperately insistent Dance of Death—that same chorale struck like lightning, leaving, after all, only the very faintest scent of consolation, I could only sit there in my seat, stunned, and marvel. Marvel despite the fact that the Dance of Death is exactly the kind of heavy-handed Shostakovich which exasperated my brother and I when hearing it in other works. Somehow I knew – with this Trio I was in the presence of greatness.

New Encounters, Evolving Opinions

It took longer for me to find a commensurate symphony experience. How dare a serious composer write 15 symphonies, after the Century of Symphonies decreed that none were to write more than nine – and then to add insult to injury, lard them with Socialist Realism and other bows and scrapes to officialdom, whether ironic or not? Is it any wonder he ran out of ideas by the 15th, so that he had to borrow some whole from other people’s works?

Such was my thinking before I sat down to listen seriously to Shostakovich’s last symphony all the way through for the first time, a year ago. But honestly now, how can anyone resist a symphony that begins with a glockenspiel solo? Especially when the first chance it gets, it pops up charmingly on the off-beats? And the ideas keep coming (yes, even including Rossini’s most famous one, from the “William Tell” opera overture), flowing seamlessly one into another and out again like only an old pro who has written 14 other symphonies knows how to do. As I wrote on Oregon Music News, reviewing the Oregon Symphony’s recent performance, this kaleidoscopic work is a perfect marriage of craft and inspiration. Seemingly conceived as more of a polyglot chamber work than a full-throated symphony, among its highlights are oozing brass chorales, aching solos for the string sections’ principals, fiendish wind dissonances (but mysteriously, only two), a ghostly scherzo, and in the finale, a slender tune that reduces two of Richard Wagner’s most portentous ideas to mere wistfulness. Once again, the personal, even vulnerable, tone of the work won me over and today I love it.

At the other end of Dmitri’s life, he wrote his first (Op. 8) piano trio when he was only 17, before the Romanticism had been crushed out of him. At this year’s Free Marz concert on March 8, violinist Inés Voglar, cellist Justin Kagan, and pianist Jeanie Baldwin gave a sweet and rather nostalgic performance of it, stirring distant memories of my own pastoral innocence. Yet even here, brutal outbursts occasionally explode, through which the composer seems to grin disturbingly.

My most recent fling with Dmitri’s music came the following week when I heard the Jerusalem Quartet play his string quartets #3, 7, 13, and 14 as part of Friends of Chamber Music’s series at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall. (This and the other concerts in the Jerusalem Quartet’s complete traversal of Shostakovich’s quartets that week, along with the Free Marz and Oregon Symphony concerts, were all part of this year’s March Music Moderne festival.) It would be hard to imagine a more seductive presentation. Despite their rather severe appearance, the Jerusalem projected a warm and lyrical sound, and their technique and ensemble were stellar. And there were moments which went straight to the heart of this old softy. The program notes reported Dmitri shed tears after the first performance of the third quartet, which was written not long after the op. 67 trio. I have an idea why. Like many passages in the trio, it’s just frankly beautiful. Even though there is an ache in it, this hedonist recognizes it for what it is, a rare delight for the senses.

But overall the concert was a lot to take all at once – the obsession with repeated square rhythms, all the unusual harmonies nonetheless laid into standard phrase patterns, the triangle of irony, bleakness and fury that Shostakovich seems so often hemmed in by – it’s still a very challenging relationship for me. No, I’m still not a Shostakovich fan, but I no longer think of endurance tests when I see his name on a concert program. I know first-hand he was capable of profound musical magic.

Portland’s Jeff Winslow is a member of Cascadia Composers.

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