Thursday, October 29, 2015

800 Words: The Sardonic Catharsis of Shostakovich Part 2


From now until music ceases to be played, the years '56 and '06 will have dual anniversaries in which Mozart and Shostakovich fight for concert hall eminence - Mozart having been born in 1756, Shostakovich in 1906. But in 2006, audiences will still bloated from the last glut of Mozart performances that inevitably accompany every year with a '41 and '91 affixed, Mozart having been died in 1791. 1991 came at the tail end of the 'period instrument revolution,' and audiences emerged from the newly minted 'historically informed' conceptions of musicians like Nikolaus Harnoncourt and John Eliot Gardiner and Charles Mackerras and Arnold Ostman with a so profoundly changed conception of Mozart's music that many music lovers spontaneously decided that all the Mozart they'd heard until then was mere Mozartkugel. The previous Mozart celebrations taking place within 1956's suburban/domestic idyll did an enormous amount to show that Mozart should be taken as seriously as a composer of more intimate music - chamber music, piano sonatas, concertos for nearly every orchestral instrument - as any composer who ever lived. But the celebrations of 1991 showed that in the 'grand forms': symphonies, operas, choral works, Mozart should never have been a lightweight to be shoved aside by later composers who got less adrenaline through more instruments. Mozart was no longer merely charming and poetic, he was Beethoven's companion in arms to - a happy warrior for the post-Cold War world of 1991, a far happier world than the world of 2006.

In 2006, Shostakovich experienced his first centenary celebration - no longer was Shostakovich a contemporary still to be evaluated, he was a titan with an unassailable niche in the Pantheon, coming down to bestow us with an eternal message. 2006, with a new American imperium seemingly set to dominate the world, belonged to Shostakovich. The world turned on its dark side: major terrorist attacks in every major capital of the West either occurred or imminent, and an American superpower responding to them in manners that more and more seemed to resemble the Soviets they'd so recently defeated. Everything which the Soviets used to do during the Cold War: blatant invasions of hostile nations without even a proxy cover, wiretapping citizens without warrant, renditions of residents without trial, trials with foregone conclusions even when defendants were permitted one, propaganda and paranoia on every television channel, and every person suspected an abetter of the enemy who did not shout their support for this militarism from the rooftops. No, despotism in modern America on its worst day never got even close to tyranny of the Soviet Union on its finest... not yet at least... but how could the Land of the Free have come so close to tyranny?... Yet again?...

Hopefully, the Bush Administration, and so much that was authoritarian and incompetent about it, will remain the distant memory it now seems after seven years of Barack Obama (though I wouldn't bank on it...). Nevertheless, the atmosphere of those years, no matter what side you took, felt very much like the mid-century. The internet seemed like a sleeping beast - as undefined in 2006 as television was in 1966. Terrorism did not merely seem like a problem of law enforcement, it was an existential threat - an explosion that kills three could be a harbinger of explosions that could kill three million. We were not facing a few rogue cells, we were facing an implacable monolithic enemy. All there was to disagree about was whether the enemy was the terrorists, or whether it was us.

We've reaped the whirlwind of the 2000's ever since, and yet, as often happens, the whirlwind is so much less of a threat than we'd made it out to be. America may not be the "Greatest Country in the World", or even the 35th from the best, but a place that can go in a few years from Bush to Obama, from the precipice of a super-depression to lowest unemployment since the 80's, is truly resilient. The world has changed as much from 2006 to 2015 as it did from 1991 to 2006, and nowhere has it changed more than in Vladimir Putin's Russia.


(People still call it a piece of trash...)

In 2006, every major world city had a Russian maestro to lead the Shostakovich celebrations - Jansons, Temirkanov, Barshai, Rozhdestvensky, Bychkov, Kreizberg, Pletnev, Ashkenazy, Rostropovich, Kitayenko, Lazarev, Sinaisky, Spivakov, Simonov, Fedoseyev, Gorenstein, Shostakovich's son Maxim Shostakovich, and Valery Gergiev seemingly in every world city all at once - all of them had met Shostakovich as young men, and all were trained by Ilya Musin, the Soviet conducting guru, to give concerts chocked with more primal music-making than just about any Westerner. By the 1970's, classical music was a specialized interest for virtually everywhere but the Soviet Union. In London or New York, the concert hall might be a place where older generations gathered to hear their classics, or where intelligent people gathered to hear interesting aural speculations on what music might be, but was there anywhere except for behind the Iron Curtain where the orchestra, the piano, the string quartet, was a way of life? Was there anywhere else where classical music was still demanded to express the plight of a person's soul? A nation's soul?

Two great Russians had an annus mirabilis that year: Shostakovich, and the man who suddenly took on the mantle of his high priest - Valery Gergiev.

Every generation has one conductor who creates true miracles: Priests and Rabbis claim to show us miracles on earth, but conductors genuinely can. Occasionally, perhaps once in a generation, a conductor arises whose very purpose seems to be to show us those miracles. Every concert is an attempt to reach out to the miraculous - they will either show us something extraordinary, or risk spectacular failure in the attempt. There is no routine at their concerts - with no advance warning, this miracle worker can completely change the tempo, or alter the dynamics, or bend the rhythm to the breaking point and then past it. It doesn't always succeed - a risk is a risk because it might fail - but every concert under their auspice is an attempt to give us the most extraordinary possible experience of music from the orchestra, which is still the most extraordinary of musical instruments. In this generation, that conductor is Valery Gergiev. Before Gergiev, there was Leonard Bernstein. Before Bernstein, there was Wilhelm Furtwangler. Before Furtwangler, perhaps there was Gustav Mahler....

What Wilhelm Furtwangler was to German music seventy years ago, Valery Gergiev is to Russian music today. In neither case has any conductor in recorded history or living memory ever given performances of their preferred music that are so intense, so searing, so searching. Some conductors come close: surely Yuri Temirkanov and Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and Mariss Jansons give us tastes of the extraordinary with regularity, but not even Temirkanov has made so many music lovers exit the concert hall in so complete a daze as Gergiev has.

For the first half of his career, Gergiev seemed to avoid the mantle that was so obviously his. He made his name throughout the world as a guest conductor with endless performances with every major orchestra of Prokofiev, of Tchaikovsky, of Mussorgsky, of Scriabin and Rachmaninov, even of Stravinsky, but the latest and greatest of those masters, was rarely featured. There was something about Shostakovich that was clearly too discomforting to feature internationally - too recent... too close to home... too close in soundworld to the more challenging master Soviet composers of more recent generations... too uncomfortable... too.... politicized...

It was a bit surprising. There is little in Shostakovich's musical soundworld that is as challenging as Stravinsky, or as even Prokofiev and Scriabin. In so many parts of the West, Shostakovich is a byword for the comfortable romanticism in which Gergiev's Western concerts seemed to specialize. Nevertheless, there was clearly something about Shostakovich Gergiev wanted to avoid - perhaps because he knew that Shostakovich, the real Shostakovich, is a hundred times more challenging and explosive than both his most fervent Western admirers and detractors choose to see. He was even quoted in the nineties as saying that he stopped conducting Shostakovich's 5th because every Russian conductor is always asked to do it, and every performance seems to paint a larger mustache on Stalin.

It's a good line - Gergiev always had a decent sense of humor - but it didn't just illustrate discomfort with being pigeonholed as a Russian conductor, it also illustrated an extreme discomfort with the West's view of Russia as a place crawling with barbarians. In the genteel world of classical music, Eastern Europeans like Gergiev are still viewed with more than a touch of Asiatic 'otherness.' To a generation of orchestral subscribers who grew up in concert halls dominated by the starchy imperiousness of maestros like Bernard Haitink or Claudio Abbado, the raw visceral excitement of a Gergiev concert seems a touch vulgar or dangerous, perhaps even forbidden.

Like Americans, Russians will always be viewed by "Europe" with a bit of suspicion. The very refinement of Europe becomes an impediment to the very things Europeans claim they prize - their view of high culture has become so refined that their culture long since desiccated. The robust, healthy culture of drawing rooms where families were expected to master Brahms and Mendelssohn quartets together is now the artificial culture where their most musical great-grandchildren are expected by their professors to learn the inconsequential atonal note-spinning of another professor so that they can justify massive government subsidies with no strings attached. The glories of music in Central Europe have so long since given way to decadence that much of the new music of Central Europe would be self-parodying to anyone but its most fervent adherents.

20th Century America began an entirely new musical tradition, as different from what came before as the notated polyphony of Leonin and Perotin was from those who preceded them. It is only in Eastern Europe, Russia and its environs, that new classical music seems to reproduce itself in a state resembling health.


Art is not a science, nor is it a feat of engineering, nor is it a drug, and therefore, originality is no guarantor of artistic value. Art which we value today for its originality today may be more prized by future generations for its psychiatric value than its aesthetic value.

Even in the hands of Bach and Mozart, music is by no means a perfect art-form. Classical Music may not hold any antidote to the agonies of our time, but it is a well-built boat that can carry those who love it from the shores of one era to the shores of the next with their spiritual sanity intact. It is a place of soul where we can experience eternal and ecstatic truths, unchanging from one generation to the next. If the Ionian Mode, Polyphony, and Sonata-Allegro Form, resound in the ears of one generation, they will resound equally in the ears of the next, even if - and perhaps particularly because - each concept means something completely different from grandfather to father to son to grandson.

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