In concert: Symphony No. 12, “The Year 1917″, op. 112

In concert:  Symphony No. 12, “The Year 1917”, op. 112
San Francisco Symphony, Pablo Heras-Casado, Oct. 28, 2010

San Francisco’s baked-in weirdness really comes to the fore if you visit while Halloween, an election, and the Giants playing a World Series (they just won the championship minutes ago, as of this writing) are all happening at once.  Compared to all that, and more so compared to a long weekend spent visiting with various friends of mine and the girlfriend’s in the Bay Area, a solo visit to a San Francisco Symphony matinee recedes somewhat into the background.  I’m happy I finally heard them live, though — despite an awful lot of classical-music tourism over the past decade and my more recent West Coast transplantation, I hadn’t managed that yet — and, auspiciously, they closed out their long weekend’s program with Shostakovich’s twelfth symphony of 1962.

I don’t know why I expected the hall not to be merely three-quarters full, or the audience even more comprised of senior citizens than in the usual big-orchestra show — maybe because I know the San Francisco Conservatory is nearby and I expected a few students, or maybe just because I forgot not to apply my own enthusiasm to the world at large.  At any rate, it was a thin, mellow, and rather old crowd, which was all the more noticeable in contrast with the featured peformers:  Pianist Alice Sara Ott is twenty-two and conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, more strikingly, is just shy of thirty-three.  Being thirty myself, I felt this twinge of what-have-you-done-with-your-own-life in the face of this youth movement, which was only heightened by the World Series happening across town at the time, in which, by the looks of Tim Lincecum and Buster Posey, the average age of a San Franscisco Giants star is roughly fourteen.  I started to think of it as a “quarter-life crisis” before calculating that such a crisis would assume I’ll live to be 120.  But I let it all pass.

The concert instantly reminded me of listening to the Baltimore Symphony, both in the ensemble’s effortlessly rich sound and the hall’s eighties-era modernity.  (The balcony pods in Baltimore’s Meyerhoff are more alienating than Davies’ and its brick-walled interior corridors feel more like a school libary, but the halls’ shape, sound, and civic-performance-space vibe are all similar.)  The Shostakovich, being a gigantic symphony, closed the program; the preceding selections all had a sonic bigness in common with it, each in their own way.  Heras-Casado opened with with a robust but not very detailed take on Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave Overture.  Ott followed with Liszt’s first piano concerto, and she and the band made a good show out of its crashing solo passages in octaves and its moments of cool, overwrought romanticism.  György Kurtág’s odd 1989 elegy Grabstein für Stephan opened the second half to a predictably but unfairly disdainful audience reaction, with the usual persistant coughing and isolated instances of low murmuring.  The Kurtág was a little musty in its loud moments, upswellings of grinding, midcentury-modernist tone color, but its quieter effects — most especially the haunting, strummed guitar arpeggios that run through it like spider silk — make it a weird, mysterious kin to the Eastern European minimalism of Henryk Górecki or Arvo Pärt.  It’s not a major piece but it was by far the most interesting part of the program.

Then, Shostakovich’s twelfth.  The work is essentially the musical equivalent of one of those big statues of Lenin that the USSR used to erect, and it stands in heavy contrast to all the brash, lively, inventive works of the early 1930s that I’ve been listening to in recent weeks.  Uniquely among Shostakovich’s symphonies — including the second, third, and eleventh, all with similar revolutionary programs — the twelfth completely lacks any spark of inner life.  It expresses only a continuous, blank sternness.  I don’t entirely know what to make of it and some degree of confusion reigns among Shostakovich’s better informed commentators and acolytes.  The composer’s friend Lev Lebedinsky notably claimed to Elizabeth Wilson that Shostakovich had written an original twelfth as a too-obvious satire of Lenin and then, panicked, threw together the present symphony as a last-minute replacement; Laurel Fay coolly disassembles that claim, noting that the lead time needed both for rehearsals and for the official review process would prevent any such swap; Wilson, in her more recent edition of Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, hedges by saying that “the story becomes more plausible if we date the rewriting to August 1961”.  Wilson also cites Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who describes the symphony as a sardonic portrait of the cult of Lenin, with parodistically over-the-top movement titles.  Ian MacDonald’s risible The New Shostakovich chases that line of thinking up to the book’s giddy height of ridiculousness, at which the author claims that the symphony satirizes the terrible ideal of Soviet music via the act of being terrible music itself.  For my own part, I don’t believe the composer put anything into opus 112 like what he put into the rest of his mature symphonies, even the most publicly-minded ones among them — given the twelfth’s psychological emptiness I simply can’t hear it otherwise.  But whatever Shostakovich’s motivations or his feelings on the work, at or after the time of composition, it remains a socialist-realist monument.  Occam’s Razor, if you dare to take it as vigorously to the context of Shostakovich’s output as you should, tells you that he produced, whatever his exact reasons, the uncomplicated symphonic paean to Lenin that the regime wanted of him.

In Dmitri Shostakovich: A Life in Film, John Riley describes a trend in the Soviet film industry in late 1940s and early 1950s towards making biopics whose famous subjects were portrayed without any private or individual life; Shostakovich’s twelfth, composed a decade after that, is a symphony built on the same principle.  Within its conventional four-movement structure it works mainly as a rhapsody on two themes — the first a grave, ascending-descending motto; the second a slightly more effusive figure quoted from the second symphony — that never betrays any emotional content deeper than a stiff seriousness or an equally serious gaze fixed on the bright future ahead.  What’s more surprising is that the musical material is so dire:  The main themes are too thin to stretch out over forty minutes and the rest of the work’s melodic and harmonic content is uninteresting to the point of being nearly impossible to remember, even in a work that I’ve been familiar enough with on disc for several years.  When I wrote up the third symphony I noted that Shostakovich echoes the style of his previous compositions but often reduces it to a flurry of stereotyped gestures; the twelfth takes that approach to the nth degree, as though it’s a blustery signifier of a Shostakovich symphony rather than the thing itself.

Heras-Casado got the gestural nature of the symphony right, especially in the first movement, “Revolutionary Petrograd”:  A brisk pace kept the piece from bogging down and his whiplike take on the music’s higher-energy figures, along with the orchestra’s tightness, drew out their shape and direction over their uninteresting melodic content.  The challenge of the work is to whip up a musical drama out of a series of exquisitely boring individual moments but Heras-Casado, by focusing on its broad strokes, did build up what genuine excitement he could.

The performers had no such luck with the second movement, though, and I doubt that anyone could — it’s a wasteland of musical ideas, the single worst symphonic movement that Shostakovich ever wrote.  Titled “The Rising” (or, transliterated instead of translated, “Razliv”, after Lenin’s hiding place during the summer of 1917) it nominally aims for a mood of austere contemplation but, as actual introspection would be inimical to Lenin’s personality cult, it ends up as a cold wash of profoundly hollow woodwind figures and sluggish repetition of the two main themes.  It lets out into the third movement, “Aurora”, which tries more or less literally to shell the audience, insofar as that’s possible with a symphony orchestra; the movement climaxes with the depiction of the titular battleship’s big guns and I think Heras-Casado would have done better to be louder and more excessive here, balance be damned.  There’s simply nothing else in the music to hold the audience’s attention, other than those pyrotechnics.

The third movement proceeds straight into the fourth, “The Dawn of Humanity”, built mainly on a series of grandly windy restatements of the second-symphony theme.  By this point the pacing and tightness seemed to have slacked somewhat, as though the performers’ endurance had worn down, though this may just as well have been my own flagging patience with the work.  The last movement does abruptly break off its celebratory mood and return to something like the tone of the second movement in a couple of key places, which feels slightly inscrutable but mostly comes off like a rote attempt to keep the music fresh.

The conclusion closely echoes the finales of the fifth and seventh symphonies — very deliberately so, I’m sure, those being at the time his two most popular and officially best-loved symphonies.  I had a peculiar reaction to the finale, though, something verging on outright sadness, which I find hard to define or explain.  Ultimately I think it’s because that musical rhetoric — the brassy, grinding dissonances, the beating of the bass drum and timpani — is totally bound up for me with the tragedy and defiance of the end of the fifth, and since the preceding three quarters of an hour of music is wholly bleached of expressive content the only emotional note I’m left with is the reflected ambivalence of the earlier work.  Too, I felt a sad, almost embarrassed, “so it’s come to this” sort of sense, that Shostakovich applied himself to such a musically poor work in the first place.  The two impressions aren’t really compatible, and in my head I just want to run with the cleaner, intellectually more defensible reaction that the composer is simply, maybe cynically, borrowing from his past triumphs to add some crunch to the end of his Lenin symphony.  It’s all in there in my head, though.  The end of the concert drew a few happy whoops from the crowd and had a great many more people making a beeline for the exits; I sat clapping, not able to bring myself to do so very enthusiastically, thinking that the artists onstage deserved better — they performed the symphony ably, and the show’s problems were the score’s, not their own.


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