Avery Fisher Hall
Lowell Liebermann: Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra (world premiere)
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony # 7
Philip Smith (trumpet)
New York Philharmonic
Kurt Masur (conductor)
So many of the masterworks of the twentieth century were greeted with disdain by both public and critics that one begins to think that no great modern symphony was acclaimed immediately as a significant contribution to the living organism that is serious music history. There are, however, some notable exceptions and perhaps none was so eagerly awaited as the "Leningrad" Symphony of Shostakovich. Released during the depths of the siege, this piece of music galvanized global opinion and forged a common bond among former enemies throughout the civilized world (the acerbic Bartok parody notwithstanding). The evacuated Leningrad Philharmonic performed it often in the early days and the American premiere broadcast under Toscanini is one of those evocative frozen moments of musical time that all discophiles cherish. As the score was being smuggled out of Russia on microfilm, Time Magazine honored the composer with a 1942 cover, showing him in fire brigade helmet, just another common member of the Jacquerie living on rats and snow and determined to outlast the Nazi horde. However, the grim determination on his face was, ironically, put there by his own political leaders, who mounted their own siege of this fragile genius long before Hitler ever looked East. The resulting symphony is a most relentless essay and one which takes an iron will to perform successfully.
Kurt Masur has such a will and, growing up German on the Russian side of the curtain, must have some interestingly personal associations with this powerful statement of individual survival. Certainly his forces were at their best last evening, digging in from the very first notes to the gritty soot of the work and surviving their own bombardment of crowd noise and coughing throughout the softer passages that begin the most famous crescendo of the century. I am always struck by the steadfastness of the snare drummer as he must repeat the same figure interminably, only varying the dynamic level slightly and slowly in order to finally let loose his cannonade during the eventual triple forte conclusion, wherein he is joined by a second player who has had the luxury of resting up until this point. Like the similar part in Bolero, this is a very difficult task but one that can be, as was the case last evening, truly impressive music making. Shostakovich only gives us variety when we are unconsciously screaming for it (this is the essence of the Bartok send-up) and, when it comes in an incipiently fugal passage, the very release of our tensions heightens our awareness of the "siege mentality" that the composer is trying to musically depict. This fine orchestra delivered the long progression from pizzicato pianissimo to zaftig fortissimo with an impressively steady intonation, free from the overblowing that sometimes haunts this difficult acoustical manoeuvre.
Some works are known by only one movement and capture the popular imagination collectively with one signature section (think of the "Moonlight" Sonata) and yet contain much other great music. The first movement of the Shostakovich is so dazzling that it sometimes eradicates the impression of the rest of the piece, particularly since it is so much longer in linear duration than the remaining sections of the work. Like a Schubert piano sonata, this symphony destroys a listener's sense of time and only a strong interpretation of the other movements keeps the totality of the performance vital. Although the Philharmonic flagged a little in the Adagio, Masur shaped the finale expertly, creating a Brucknerian edifice that stood solemnly after the shelling had ceased. Many conductors miss this particular architectural image with its quotes from previous Shostakovich symphonies, but last evening we were all left with a feeling of the triumph of the individual over the forces of evil and a sense that the strength of man's goodness will endure despite all obstacles (one of the reasons why Mstislav Rostropovich refers to Shostakovich as the "Beethoven of the twentieth century"). This was a truly moving performance and was warmly appreciated with a prolonged standing ovation.
A piece of this length and depth needs an inconsequential curtain raiser and was certainly granted one with the premiere of the sophomoric concerto of Mr. Liebermann. Evocative in its last movement of the Shostakovich Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, the work was at best a pastiche of trumpet effects and reasonably well played by the occupant of the orchestra's first chair. Not very long and a little daffy, it allowed us all to go out on the balcony and have some champagne before the real music began. It was a very pleasant evening to gaze out over Lincoln Center Plaza, so I guess we owe Mr. Liebermann at least a little applause. Can he hear the sound of one hand clapping?
Frederick L. Kirshnit