Friday, May 2, 2008

Shostakovich "Violin Concerto No. 1" at SF Symphony

Last night I took in Dmitri Shostakovich's "Violin Concerto No. 1" at the SF Symphony. The soloist on violin was Vadim Gluzman (pictured here), an absolute assassin of a violinist, who rose to the occasion of a concerto that demands virtuosic ability from its soloist.

I first became aware of Shostakovich when I found myself entranced by the opening music in Eyes Wide Shut. (In fairness, the footage on-screen was Nicole Kidman naked; the association might now be permanent in my mind, and thus the love of Shostakovich perhaps?) It's no accident that Kubrick chose this composer to score a story about the dissatisfaction simmering beneath the perfect veneer of an upscale married couple; Shostakovich composed his music under Soviet rule in the Thirties and Forties, and his works are superficially stately and beautiful (as demanded by Soviet authorities) but contain a barely repressed chaos.

At times, a Shostakovich composition can seem to be on the verge of flying off its own rails…in many ways he is the great underminer of all that's superficially pleasing about classical music... one of classical music's great postmodernists.

"Violin Concerto No. 1" runs about 35 minutes and can only be described as ferocious. After a slow, brooding opening movement, the orchestra uncorks the buildup and the violinist commences terrorizing. Violinists are actually prone to snapping bowstrings as they shred their instrument with Rachmaninoff-type intensity. There's a sense you're watching a violinist's high-wire act.

(Check out this YouTube video of a teenage Sayaka Shoji killing the final movement, if you want a taste of what the concerto sounds like and what it demands of its soloist.)

I normally can't relate to classical music...but unlike so many classical composers, Shostakovich wasn't spending his time attending balls and eating bonbons and trying to impress his local emperor-patron. Instead, Shostakovich was living in the gray cinderblock wasteland of Soviet Russia with Stalin writing nasty op-ed columns about his work…here was a composer who had to worry about a midnight train ride to Siberia, and his music sounds like it.

Fun note: Mr. Gluzman plays a Stradivarius violin made in 1690, which is on extended loan to him from the Stradivari Society. It's in very good hands.

1 comment:

rakiel said...

wow....."a barely repressed chaos"

(although i hated eyes wide shut) all i remember is the annoying one piano note - ding, ding, ding, ding - over and over.

i love the sound of a violin though- in the hands of a classical musician, a mariachi or in a fast paced country ho down. who'd a thought you could get that wonderful sound from horses hair!