Sunday, May 13, 2018

The St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra performs Shostakovich's Symphony No.7 at the Bronfman Auditorium, Tel Aviv

Maestro Yuri Temirkanov (photo: Stas Levshin)

In Israel for festive concerts, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra played two different programs of Russian music at the Charles Cultural Center (Heichal Hatarbut) Tel Aviv on May 9th and 10th 2018. Both programs were conducted by Yuri Temirkanov, who has served as the Orchestra’s chief conductor for the last 30 years. This writer attended the event of May 9th; the program consisting solely of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No.7 “Leningrad”, a work originally intended to be a celebration of the Russian victory over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War (as Russians call it). May 9th is indeed the date of Victory Day. It was also Maestro Temirkanov’s wish to perform in Israel with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra in honour of 70 years of the State of Israel.


There could be few works in Western musical repertoire that have a history as dramatic as the Shostakovich 7th. Its first full performance was in Leningrad (St Petersburg) in August of 1942 and played by a half-starved Radio Orchestra, of which only fourteen players had survived. Dzaudhat Aydarov, who (symbolically) played the most demanding role in the symphony -  the side drum that beats the relentless rhythm of war at the heart of the first movement - was discovered still alive in the morgue by conductor Karl Eliasberg. Other stories of heroism and humanity associated with the “Leningrad” Symphony have been revealed by the moving accounts of Olga Kvade and Tamara Korol’kevich, who were in the audience in the Grand Hall of the Philharmonia at its premiere; the music surely reflected the tragedy and suffering of their own experiences in the siege. The symphony also resonates Shostakovich’s propaganda power as a Soviet composer, writing the sounds of resistance to the Nazis at the same time as he was saving the Leningrad Conservatory from German incendiary bombs as a firefighter on the roof of the building; his picture in fireman’s uniform appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in the summer of 1942, as the 7th Symphony embarked on a tour of a war-torn world.


And that is not where the symphony’s history ended: the work itself has undergone a battering at the hands of known figures of the musical community, from when American critic and composer Virgil Thomson claimed that the symphony “seems to have been written for the slow-witted, the not very musical and the distracted” to contemporary British composer and writer Robin Holloway, who has described Shostakovich’s writing as “music to rouse rabble, to be seen from far away like slogans in letters 30 feet high, music without inner musical necessity”. Yuri Temirkanov’s profound and sensitive reading into Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony proved much to the contrary. In his unforgettable Tel Aviv performance of the “Leningrad”, Maestro Temirkanov showed the audience that, when its melody appears the most banal, as the innocent but stealthy tune that pervades the first movement, it represents how the most mediocre and unthinking idea – or person – can inflict the greatest devastation. Shostakovich was revealing the truth of all ideological tyrannies. The composer himself said that one of its themes was “Fascism. But music, real music, can never be literally tied to a theme. National Socialism is not the only form of fascism; this music is about all forms of terror, slavery, the bondage of the spirit.” By the end of the work, it was clear to those present at the Tel Aviv performance that victory is hard won, by no means emerging in an idyllic state.


The St. Petersburg Philharmonic is a huge orchestra, but the Tel Aviv audience, of which many people were from the former Soviet Union, was witness to how over one hundred instrumentalists play as one. Their joint precision is as remarkable, indeed arresting, as is their expressiveness and collective orchestral sound. Conducting without a baton, Temirkanov coloured each tutti with his full palette of dynamics. The many solo utterances emerged personal and nostalgic, evoking loneliness and silence, in superbly shaped melodies that represent the individual human. The conductor invited his players to present the agony, the memories, the dreams, anger and the bitterness of the people, its sentiments not devoid of Shostakovich’s signature cynicism. It was common knowledge among Russians that their greatest living composer had written a symphony in support of their heroic resistance. Whether this work is optimistic or pessimistic is for the listener to decide. Hearing it performed by Maestro Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra was a moving, for many present, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

It is no easy task to follow such a work with an encore, but Maestro Temirkanov and his orchestra managed to do so and with refinement: "Nimrod" from Edward Elgar's "Enigma Variations" made for a tranquil, ponderous and poignant finishing touch to the evening.



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