The concert that Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted Saturday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall was enjoyable, in no small part, for what it didn’t have. There weren’t any familiar works on the program, a circumstance that has the tendency to keep a listener on his toes. There weren’t any masterpieces either, at least not of the certified variety, which was a sort of relief from the museum aura that so many programs have, where the listener sits in a pool of awe, admiring. No one talked about the music at concert time, explaining it and nudging our judgments. The only words that Salonen uttered were an introduction to a distinguished guest in the audience, Irina Shostakovich, the composer’s widow.
There is a kind of absence in Salonen’s conducting, too, that makes it enjoyable. He doesn’t put a lot of spin on the music, doesn’t grandstand with it, or milk it. One felt that the music was put first Saturday night, and Salonen stood out of the way. That is not to say he didn’t do anything, however. The performances maintained a remarkable energy throughout and, in the case of the second work on the program, a noticeably practiced hand was at work in the pacing. What’s more, the orchestra was in excellent fettle and played with that fine clarity of texture that Salonen has long been noted for.
The big news was the world premiere of “Orango,” an uncompleted opera by Shostakovich written in 1932, and only rediscovered in 2004. The composer finished the Prologue in piano/vocal score and Shostakovich scholar Gerard McBurney orchestrated it, basing his work on other Shostakovich works of the time and on the ballet “The Bolt,” two sections of which the composer reused here. The Prologue lasts around 40 minutes.
It’s excellent music, written when the composer was still in his 20s, brilliant, frenetic and whacky. A lot of it is music-hall parody, waltzes giddied up, pratfall cadences and the like. McBurney justifiably uses saxophones, a drum set, car horn, slide whistle and banjo in the score. There is a wild orchestral galop (I think) partway through that takes the breath away.
The plot concerns a half-ape, half-human hybrid named “Orango,” on display for the masses in the Prologue. There are singing workers, a host, and various personages involved in the story to come, the opera itself, which was apparently to be told in a flashback.
Peter Sellars directed, and he was up to his usual politicizing tricks. His modus operandi is to make things relevant to our times, as if we wouldn’t get the message otherwise. For the overture and then when the workers sing of the terrible jobs they had under the czar, a series of slides showing mass protests flashed on the screen above the orchestra, some from the Occupy Wall Street assemblies. Juxtaposed with those photos (often flashing quickly) were others of military hardware, explosions, and foreclosure signs, our evil government at work.
The singers were dressed in plain clothes, as is Sellars habit. Orango wore a T-shirt and jeans, and carried his own ladder to mount his own enclosure, a raised pen on stage right. The flashing photos distracted, but they did create their own rhythm, in tune with the hectic music. For a couple of ballet interludes, old black-and-white footage of dancing ballerinas was used charmingly. A journalist character hectored Salonen on the podium (wink, wink). The singing, all fairly rudimentary in the Prologue, was capable. Ryan McKinney made a lively tuxedoed host (The Entertainer) and Eugene Brancoveanu a suitably threatening Orango. The Los Angeles Master Chorale, or a portion of it, served duty as crowd and workers.
It was all entertaining and interesting. It is perhaps unfortunate that only this slice of the work survives, but then we have other similar works by Shostakovich from the period (including the opera “The Nose”; he had also begun “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” by this time) that will have to stand in.
The second half of the program was devoted to a rare performance of the Symphony No. 4 from 1936. Shostakovich withdrew it in the wake of Stalin’s threats over “Lady Macbeth” and the work was not performed until the 60s. What is not always mentioned is that Shostakovich withdrew the Fourth after 10 rehearsals and, disingenuously or not, professed never to be happy with it.
The Fourth is a mess, a glorious mess, certainly, but a mess all the same. In three movements and some 60 minutes long, it meanders through an endless series of complexities and jump-cuts, congealing but little. The orchestra is huge (the largest of any Shostakovich symphony), the harmony is dissonant and the explosions are enormous, but much of it is chamber music calisthenics. In fact, the entire thing is full of vitality, and that’s what carries the day; it’s just that the composer seems to have thrown too much in. Furthermore, his aim appears to be to discombobulate the listener rather than to show him the way, and at this he succeeds. The ending is a case in point. It leads up to colossal C-major chords in the brass as if triumphant, but ends muttering gibberish in C minor. One could say that this is an early sign of Shostakovich the Enigma, but it really just leaves you scratching your head.
The perhaps uncomfortable irony is that Shostakovich became a better composer once Stalin threatened his life. It focused his energies and turned his music towards his signature mode: Ambiguity.
Salonen and the orchestra gave it a potent and virtuoso performance, loudly appreciated by the audience.
I really enjoyed Orango. Terrific music and McBurney did an excellent job, I think, in putting it together. I could have lived without all the images projected. Fortunately, I was behind the orchestra and could block it out much of the time.
I do have to disagree with this statement:
“The perhaps uncomfortable irony is that Shostakovich became a better composer once Stalin threatened his life. It focused his energies and turned his music towards his signature mode: Ambiguity.”
Shostakovich became ambiguous by necessity. That he wrote some very powerful pieces after Pravda article is a testament to the talent he already possessed. All of this happened right around the time he turned 30 so he was still developing as a composer. I think those early pieces are fascinating for the new sound worlds he was trying to create. This even goes back to the innovative 1st Symphony. Some experiments have not held up well like the continuous development idea of the 3rd Symphony. But some pieces like Lady Macbeth are masterpieces. I would put the 4th Symphony in that category too. The freedom of expression in these works is extraordinary. He did have to shift in those later pieces but I wonder what sort of music he would have churned out if he were allowed to continue on this path. But I am happy to have so many amazing works from the 5th Symphony on.
Well, I’m not saying he wasn’t a gifted composer before the Pravda article. And I’m fascinated by his early work; a lot of it is very strong. But the Fifth Symphony is a better piece than the Fourth Symphony, as much as I like the latter. And the ambiguity in Shostakovich’s works written after the Pravda article add another layer to the music, not present in his earlier works.
I also think it’s interesting that his post-Pravda work is far more popular in the West than his earlier stuff.
But yes, he was young when we wrote “Orango” and the 4th. We can’t deduce that all the changes in his style were just because of Stalin. But boundaries and limits (even unfair ones) can be good for artists.
Yes, quite right about the ambiguity adding another layer. I do wonder if he continued in this experimental phase how popular he would have been and what sort of music he would have produced. Maybe even Boulez would have conducted some of it! No matter though now since his music on both sides of Pravda is fascinating.
BTW, nice picture for this post!
Very much in agreement with Tim here. To my ears, Shostakovich’s only truly outstanding pieces before 1936 are the 1st Symphony and the two completed operas. The other works, including Orango Prologue and the 4th Symphony, are certainly interesting and have their brilliant moments, but overall are not of that same very high musical quality. All of his remaining best output was created later, starting with the 5th Symphony and continuing for next three decades plus. We don’t know the answers to hypothetical questions of “what if” variety, but one thing is certain for sure – some artistic talents, his definitely included, thrive amazingly well under extremely adverse conditions.
I really enjoyed the Sunday concert for all of its excess, and the concert made me realize how much I miss having Esa-Pekka on the podium.
I wonder if the wild orchestral gallop you enjoyed was the big, loud percussive thing (like that narrows things). If so, that’s one of the pieces of music Shostakovich seems to reuse in many different places. It’s used to great effect in his score to the Bright Stream ballet, another victim of Stalin’s artistic curation, and which ABT did at the Music Center this summer. You can hear it in the Rozhdestvensky recording on Chandos of the ballet: http://www.amazon.com/Shostakovich-Limpid-Stream-Dmitry/dp/B000000AYB
Track 12 is what I’m thinking of. The ballet steps by Alexei Ratmansky in ABT’s production use this music to breathtaking effect. His ballet suites are also a great collection of the kind of zany theater music he composed in this period, too. I like the Neeme Jarvi recording on Chandos.
“Peter Sellars directed, and he was up to his usual politicizing tricks. His modus operandi is to make things relevant to our times, as if we wouldn’t get the message otherwise.”
I could not have said it better myself, and in fact, I did not.
I’m not sure if any film done by Mr. Sellars to accompany an orchestral concert has been worthwhile. The silliness he forced upon all of us this past weekend made the drivel he showed for John Adams’ “El Niño” downright restrained in comparison.
As I said somewhere else, “Mr. Sellars is as subtle as a Kardashian.” I hope that he might do something in the future to change that opinion, but I doubt he would.
I loved your Kardashian line. Though Sellars has done good work in the past, I believe he may have jumped the shark. I wonder why Salonen, Adams, Upshaw et al continue to use him. Friends, I guess.
It’s the hair. Gustavo has nothing on Big Peter . . .