Fire! Fire! HRO performs Shostakovich

by Victoria Aschheim

The Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra warmly invites you to attend our concert on Friday, December 4, 2009, at 8pm in Sanders Theatre to experience Maestro Federico Cortese conducting us in Shostakovich No. 5, one of the dramatic landmarks of classical music. Our guest artist and treasure of American music, Mark O'Connor, the amazing violinist and composer performing his own "Call of the Mockingbird," and Mozart's Symphony No. 35, "Haffner" round out the exciting program for which the HRO has been avidly rehearsing for you, our beloved audience. Hoping to see you on Friday!

Now, in preparation for the concert, may I give you a program note on Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 (in the spirit of Leonard Bernstein '39, speaking to and rehearsing Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1 with the Schleswig-Holstein Orchestra)?

The Fifth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) is a renowned statement of politics and music. His opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk had been verbally attacked on January 28, 1936, in an article in Pravda, the Soviet newspaper, as neurotic, fidgety, coarse, primitive, vulgar, displaying "the depraved tastes of bourgeois audiences." Lady Macbeth was banned by the Soviets.

This was an indication of Shostakovich's standing in the eyes of the Soviet government. It is said that Shostakovich was singled out because of his preeminence among the contemporary composers of the Soviet Union. Symphony No. 5 was his creative response, issued with the statement: "the creative reply of a Soviet artist to justified criticism." This sad phrase, which has been called "astonishing," has reverberated in musical history in connection with the Fifth Symphony.

Symphony No. 5 was introduced in Leningrad on November 21, 1937, in an atmosphere of Soviet mass arrests in a purge of the Communist Party and Soviet government. The work was an immense success. The audience is said to have wept during the slow movement and applauded the symphony for half an hour at its end. Symphony No. 5 is Shostakovich's triumph over adversity with the major key superceding the minor in the final movement.

Was this an expression of Socialist Realism, a necessity of the Soviet Union's insistence on joyous and optimistic conclusions? We can only surmise the price that Shostakovich paid in his personal struggle of despair and deep sorrow in this connection of politics and music.

I captured the HRO in rehearsal on November 24 in Sanders Theatre. Here is a clip from the second movement of Symphony No. 5; Maestro Cortese advises on the orchestra on controlling our dynamics.

Here is a clip from the third movement of Symphony No. 5, featuring a pivotal, poignant oboe solo (at 1:21) that reminded me of the plaintive eloquence and melodic tension of the oboe solo that opens the third movement of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1. Watch a clip from the surging, triumphant fourth movement here.

After rehearsal Maestro Cortese gave me this update on how rehearsals have been going, as well as snapshots of the other repertoire on the December 4 program, including Mark O'Connor's Call of the Mockingbird, featuring Mr. O'Connor as violin soloist, and Mozart's Symphony No. 35, "Haffner."

[Caption: First violin part for Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5]

[Caption: Balcony of Sanders Theatre]