A Classic Encounter With The Cold War

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OK.  This is late.  Classic Encounter was in December, but I’ve been a very busy, over worked individual.  So chalk this up as better late than never.  We will be meeting again at Symphony Center in a few weeks, so I thought I’d better get this up NOW.

This was an evening of musical mood swings.  We heard optimistic and beautiful works from England and the U.S.A.  Then we heard the darkness of the Russian arts in the aftermath of a horrific regime in the Soviet Union.  We came up with a few ideas for a drinking game with vodka, which is a good way to get through a cold Russian winter, but you’re on your own to come up with your own rules.

Let’s go to England first.  We heard Edward Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture (In London Town), composed at the turn of the century.  Was Elgar ever depressed?  Hard to tell by his music.  He lived 1857 till 1934.  There are those in the crowd that thought this piece was about cocaine.  Or a phallic reference.  None of the above.  Not from Elgar.  When you hear Cockaigne…think Cockney.  Very English.  This is a piece about how London is the greatest place to live in the world.  Why the British Tourism whatever hasn’t embraced this piece is beyond me.  But after listening to it, one would like to live in England.  Very pleasant.

The very same London Town that inspired Elgar worked the same magic with Sir Paul McCartney.  Both Elgar and McCartney recorded at Abbey Road studios in London, but were never in the same band.  Paul, his wife Linda and Denny Laine recorded their own tribute to London Town.

If Elgar is Paul McCartney, Shostakovich is John Lennon.  More about Shostakovich later.

The next work was from the USA.  It is Samuel Barber’s beautiful Violin Concerto.  Barber did live to see Beatlemania.  He was alive 1910 till 1981.  If the name Barber sounds familiar you are probably familiar with his Adagio For Strings.  Even if you’re new to this classical music thing, you have probably heard this in a film soundtrack.  Or maybe a friend turned you on to this as one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever in the history of humans making music.  That friend would be correct.  If you have a short attention span, cue into 5:10 and let it play for two minutes.  If this doesn’t move you, go back to whatever you were doing.  Abandon hope.

That evening we heard Barber’s Violin Concerto.  This was composed 1939-40.  Before Meet The Beatles.  The soloist that evening was the CSO’s own Robert Chen.  If you have been to the CSO the last couple of years you’ve probably seen the conductor come out and shake his hand.  Custom.  There is no fist bumping in classical music…yet.  Mr. Chen did a fantastic job with this Barber work.

Here’s where the evening’s mood swing went into effect.  Luckily there was an intermission so people could get a vodka beverage to prepare for Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10.  His life span was 1906 to 1975.  We listened to his Symphony No. 8 at Classic Encounter in 2004.  It was composed during World War II.  One of three of his wartime symphonies that was banned by the Soviet government.  After the war, Stalin cracked down on artistic communities.  Their lives were at stake.  Shostakovich always had his suitcase packed and by the door in case he had to escape.

At the end of World War II and the defeat of Hitler and the Nazi’s, there was a lot of optimism about the future of the USSR under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, a true hero of the war.  An American gospel group, The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet, reflected that appreciation.

But let’s get real and see another view of Stalin.

There is an animated satire on you tube about Shostakovich and Stalin’s testy relationship.  It was not suitable for playing at Symphony Center, and the kids might be listening to this, so I will restrain myself once again.  Just sayin’.  If you’re not averse to salty language, it’s on the information highway.  Here’s a bit of a documentary on the life of Shostakovich.  If you want to get to the part on Symphony No. 10, begin at 3:30.

He finished and premiered the 10th in 1953, after the death of Stalin earlier that year.

The first movement is slow and long.  But it really holds the listener’s interest.  What starts as wistful and sad leads to a climax halfway through with military drums.  It’s a haunting movement that could stand alone as an amazing piece of music.  The 2nd movement is a military march that builds to 50 crescendos.  The 3rd movement is a waltz.  The 4th begins slow with a big ending.  Listen for the Mahler influence.

This work reflected the terror, despair, and violence of the Stalin regime.  But don’t get bogged down in narratives.  Sometimes we get so literal with our interpretations.  Instead of hearing this as a historical period piece and keeping it in Stalin’s time, bring the dissonance, fear, paranoia, shame and rage to our own times.  Go beyond the themes of war and peace to repression and justice.  And paranoia.  The same  fear that compelled Shostakovich to keep that packed suitcase by the door haunts our own generation of artists.  That fear could be connected to the political, historical world, but can also be very personal and local.  Here are a couple of examples.

John Lennon’s Gimmie Some Truth.

Radiohead’s Paranoid Android features the lyrics:

Please could you stop the noise, I’m trying to get some rest from all the unborn chicken voices in my head.  When I am king, you will be first against the wall with your opinion, which is of no consequence at all.

And then The National’s Afraid of Everyone.

You can picture the artist, Shostakovich, Lennon, Yorke and The National, all with their suitcase by the door.

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