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From Erie Philharmonic Marketing Manager Brigit Stack
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
The term “protest music” typically conjures images and sounds of the 60’s folk and rock music that we come to associate with counter-culture and social movements of that era. But to anyone who’s ever listened to Dmitri Shostakovich’s music, the term applies to many pieces of orchestral music as well. In the orchestral world, in fact, there’s many instances of radical music – oftentimes without words – that spoke to political movements, uprisings, tragedies and more. Sometimes the music was composed posthumously, but it was nevertheless revolutionary and sometimes dangerous to publish or perform.
Throughout the history of classical music, there is no better example of this than composer Dmitri Shostakovich. So much of what he wrote spoke to Joseph Stalin’s regime in what we now know as Russia and criticized it, even when the focus of his music was not outwardly named to be referencing that environment. Below I want to recommend some of what I believe to be the most powerful and daring music Shostakovich composed to protest the morally corrupt and apprehensible things he lived through. Much of Shostakovich’s music becomes clearly more relevant today and underscores how some of Russia’s history is playing out again in our current moment, standing as “protest music.” His music showcases that in times of strife and despair at a larger, governmental level, there are two types of this protest music: covert themes and musical styles and overt protest through topics and dedications.
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5
When Joseph Stalin was still reigning over the Soviet Union, Shostakovich often tried to hide his protests as hidden “covert” messages and themes in his music. One of the pieces that illustrated this was his Symphony No. 5. The piece was written after a newspaper article condemned his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. His opera was denounced in the newspaper Pravda, in an article titled “Muddle Instead of Music.” Solomon Volkov wrote, “the Party newspaper…carried out a sentence that was to be final (and not subject to appeal): ‘This is music intentionally made inside out…This is leftist muddle.’ As will be shown, these angry opinions belonged personally to Stalin, the country’s main cultural arbiter” (34). Shostakovich immediately began to fear for his life and his family’s safety, sleeping in the stairwell in case Stalin’s police came to take him away in the middle of the night. To illustrate the fear of dying in Stalin’s Soviet Union, “Someone said then ‘it used to be a lottery now it’s a queue’” (Volkov 213). Before his composition of the 5th Symphony, his older sister had been arrested and his mother-in-law sent to a concentration camp. His music was too vulgar and dark and Stalin wanted the Soviet Union and its history to remain in a positive light – whether it meant glorifying its heroes or more “optimistic” sounding music. Although the music has its darker moments, it ends with a triumphant and more positive tone/major key (the same key as Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”), keeping the overall message of the symphony tongue in cheek. This interpretation is depicted especially in the audience’s response to its premiere. “By the end of the symphony, the entire audience was standing, applauding wildly through their tears” (Volkov 150). The standing ovation was said to last for more than 30 minutes. The apparent “joyful” final movement of the piece turns around, however, and mocks the very thing Shostakovich was trying to save himself from.
Erie Phil From Home, Episode 29
The Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 is a very haunting and emotionally powerful piece. The excerpt below starts in the cadenza in the third movement. The cadenza unfolds with the violin repeating the same note, a lonely sound, almost like deep sighs or heartbeats. Shostakovich slowly develops and expands the solo line until it’s playing double, triple and quadruple stops, always building in intensity and speed. After nearly five minutes of the violin playing alone, the entire orchestra joins for the fiery finale, titled: Burlesque. The finale is thrilling, never letting up on its relentless character all the way up to the end. The Shostakovich 1st Violin Concerto is truly one of my favorite pieces to listen to and to perform, and I hope you enjoy our performance of it!
From Erie Philharmonic Second Violinist Lou Nicolia
In 2007, Keita Fukushima, violin, and myself formed a duo called Strada.
We had the good fortune, through Keita's connections, to get a concert at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall in New York City. We came up with an eclectic program of violin duos with some special guests.
At the time I had a friend who worked for composer Ned Rorem and I asked him if he would write a lullaby for our duo. He agreed since he had never written one before! Thankfully, I was able to get funds from several generous donors within the Erie community. We also commissioned Iranian-American composer Reza Vali who wrote a beautiful piece for violin and struck glasses.
We also spent a week in Japan performing this show - I was very grateful to be involved in this project!
The polka Old Country Oberek was accordionist Joe Matzcak's idea. I arranged a twin fiddle part and we recorded it at Peppermint Studio in Youngstown, Ohio for the album Diamond Anniversary Edition by the Penn-Ohio Polka Pals. You can listen to both of these pieces by click below!
Live from Studio Q - Edgar Meyer
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Live from Studio Q - String Quartet
Today's episode features a full performance of Beethoven's 'Serioso' Quartet in preparation for our season finale concert in April 13, featuring Mahler's arrangement of this work for full string orchestra.
Live from Studio Q - Yulianna Avdeeva
Join us for an amazing program featuring performances and interviews from 2010 Chopin competition-winning pianist Yulianna Avdeeva.