[From the archives: First published December 7, 1998]
CLASSICAL MUSIC: Maxim Shostakovich, who conducts the Pacific Symphony this week, devotes his life to championing his father.
BYLINE: TIMOTHY MANGAN
Despite the thick Russian accent and basic English, despite the
impatience that comes from having to deal with the same old
questions, you can still hear tenderness in Maxim Shostakovich’s
voice. It surfaces whenever he mentions his father.
The 61-year-old conductor is best known as the son of the great
Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), and he seems
perfectly happy with second billing. In fact his professional life
is almost entirely devoted to the Shostakovichian cause. He holds
no official post with any orchestra, and he likes it that way.
“I’m a free-lance,” Maxim says, “and I conduct all over the
world with different orchestras. I travel a lot. It’s great because
it’s better for me, because I can conduct more of my father’s
music. I try to include a work of my father’s in every program. ”
Being Shostakovich’s son, Maxim says, is “a great
responsibility,” not only because the musical world looks to him
for authentic interpretations of the music but also because that
same world continues to wrestle over the music’s subtext. The
questions may be simple — was Shostakovich pro-communist or anti?
And did his music reflect those beliefs? — but the answers are far
Speaking on the phone from New Orleans, where in 1986-91 he was
music director of the orchestra and now guest conducts, Maxim shies
away from discovering explicit meanings in his father’s work. Asked
about the Tenth Symphony (the work he conducts this week with the
Pacific Symphony Orchestra) — which includes a fierce Scherzo
sometimes said to be a portrait of Stalin and a recurring theme
made from the letters in the German spelling of Shostakovich — he
dismisses any extramusical associations.
“It’s just a symphony,” he says. “It’s one of the great pages of
Father’s creativity. It’s not about Stalin — no, no, no. It’s just
music. Abstract absolutely. ”
But why did Shostakovich use his own name as a theme? “Just
because he felt like it, maybe,” Maxim suggests. “Just to show his
presence. Something like this. ”
RUMORS, TRUE AND FALSE
The real battle for Shostakovich’s soul began with the
publication of Solomon Volkov’s 1979 memoir, “Testimony,” a radical
reappraisal of Shostakovich’s life and works as reportedly told by
the composer. “Testimony” put a spin on the music that turned every
seemingly pro-Soviet gesture into its ironical antithesis, perhaps
the most notorious example being the end of the Fifth Symphony.
Long considered the composer’s self-rescuing response to the
official Soviet denouncement (in Pravda) of his lurid and dissonant
1934 opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” the more conservative Fifth
Symphony became a model for “socialist realism” in music. A
commentator called it “the creative reply of a Soviet artist to
justified criticism,” and the composer concurred. The symphony ends
with a huge, celebratory climax for brass and drums in D major,
said to be a paean to the communist state. But “Testimony” turns
that interpretation on its head.
“It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick,” Volkov’s
Shostakovich says of that ending, “and saying, ‘Your business is
rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,’ and you rise, shaky, and go
marching off, muttering, ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business
is rejoicing. ‘ What kind of an apotheosis is that? You have to be a
complete oaf not to hear that. ”
The trouble is that “Testimony” proved to be a whole or partial
fabrication of Volkov, who borrowed from old articles by
Shostakovich and added material of his own, quite possibly without
the knowledge of the composer. A debate over “Testimony’s”
authenticity ensued, and continues, with illustrious partisans on
both sides, and with Maxim, before and after his defection in 1981,
first on one and then the other.
Maxim now thinks that Volkov’s book “is basically true,” though
he says that it contains several rumors, some false, some true. His
own interpretation of the finale of the Fifth is simpler than,
though in basic agreement with, Volkov’s. “When I conduct this
symphony I feel like it’s the triumph of truth — real truth. ” And
he laughs at any suggestion that it’s a celebration of the October
A VOICE AMID THE MUSIC
Born in Leningrad, Maxim studied piano at the Central Music
School there and, later, at the Moscow Conservatory, where he
continued his piano studies and added conducting, tutoring with
Gennady Rozhdestvensky and Igor Markevitch.
But his father maintained the greatest influence, he says. “All
my music education was under his control. Our house had plenty of
musicians, my father always discussed performers and performances
and it affected me greatly; it formed my musical tastes. He wasn’t
my official teacher, but he was my major teacher. ”
Upon graduation, Maxim became assistant conductor of the Moscow
Symphony and, in 1971, the principal conductor and artistic
director of the USSR Radio and Television Symphony, with which he
gave the premiere of his father’s Fifteenth Symphony. The work
holds a special significance for Maxim.
“First of all, he never showed his music before he finished his
work. And when he brought this score and said, ‘Oh, Maxim, I would
like you to conduct this music,’ I was so happy you can’t imagine.
I was so happy. ” They worked together on the score, “but he never
talked too much about his music. In rehearsals he just made pretty
dry suggestions. ”
The symphony, however, is spiced with quotations — of Wagner
and, famously, of the galloping theme from Rossini’s “William Tell”
— which, again, led to speculations of secret meanings in the
music. Hesitant at first, Maxim weighs in on the Rossini quote. “A
lot of musicologists say it represents a musical toy shop. But I
don’t think it’s right explanation. It’s very personal, actually. I
think it’s some kind of advice, advice to me. To be strong. Because
remember how in Rossini’s opera, when William Tell takes an apple,
puts it on his son’s head and shoots it? He said to his son: ‘Be
strong, don’t move; I don’t make mistake, you don’t make mistake.
Don’t move, don’t shake. “‘
With his own son, also named Dmitri and a composer and pianist,
Maxim defected to the West in 1981, conditions in the Soviet Union having become unbearable. He calls it “an absolutely hopeless time”
when even his radio programs were subject to official approval.
Father and son are now both U.S. citizens.
Since 1994, however, he has returned regularly to Russia. His
7-year-old daughter studies in St. Petersburg and he appears
frequently with the Philharmonic there. Shostakovich, there and
everywhere, continues as his focus, and not out of duty.
“Because I love this music. It is my native music. When I
conduct his music I feel he is close to me. I can recognize his
voice through sounds of his music. “