Friday, February 23, 2018

Boreyko Deftly Balances Bernstein and Shostakovich

Visiting conductor Andrey Boreyko (photograph by Christoph Rüttger, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

Last night conductor Andrey Boreyko returned to the podium of Davies Symphony Hall to give the first of the three performances of this week’s subscription offering by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). The intermission separated two compositions by Leonard Bernstein (thus wrapping up the series of concerts prepared for the SFS schedule of Bernstein centennial events) from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 47 (fifth) symphony in D minor. This may seem like an odd coupling of composers; but, as has been previously observed, when, at a time when the Cold War was at its coldest, Bernstein took the New York Philharmonic on a visit to the Soviet Union, he included Opus 47 in his concert programming.

Furthermore, these two men had at least one shared interest that both of them took very seriously; and that was the work of the composer Gustav Mahler. The more attentively one listens to Shostakovich, particularly his orchestral music, the more likely one is to find Mahler’s presence lurking, even if he is only hiding in a dark corner. Last night it was clear that Boreyko recognized this “Mahler connection.” This was particularly evident in his treatment to the Allegretto scherzo (second) movement, which found just the right balance between acknowledging all of the sharp edges that are always exposed in a Mahler scherzo and evoking the galumphing of Soviet authority trampling on artistic creativity.

That latter quality was, of course, deftly encoded. In 1936 Shostakovich had been denounced by Soviet authorities, due, probably in no small part, to Joseph Stalin’s negative reaction to Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The first immediate result was the cancelation of the first performance of Shostakovich’s fourth symphony (Opus 43 in C minor); but this was just the beginning of his being virtually exiled in his own country.

Opus 47 was composed in 1937 as an effort to get back in good graces. It seems to have succeeded through prevailing rhetoric of fervid patriotism, concluding with a “heroic” Allegro non troppo movement that knew how to pull all of the right emotional strings. It is also a movement whose coda is, for all intents and purposes, blatant in fervidly patriotic rhetoric. However, before that episode begins, Shostakovich serves up some of his best contrapuntal skills in superposing all of the key themes presented during that movement.

Presumably, as a conductor, Bernstein was well aware of this compositional tour de force and may well have reveled in showing it off the the Russians as well as the New Yorkers. It would therefore not be unreasonable to assume that this music was on his mind when he composed the concluding March for his 1980 “Divertimento,” the music with which Boreyko began his program. The entire composition was written for the centennial of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO); and Bernstein used that March to pull out all the stops, so to speak. In a spirit that has as much to do with John Philip Sousa as with Shostakovich, all of the themes of the movement are distributed across different sections of the orchestra, meaning that they can all be played simultaneously. (Boreyko had the brass and piccolo players, two of them, stand, making it easier for the audience to sort out how many different tunes were coming from different parts of the stage.)

That conclusion is but one of many comic moments that season the entire divertimento. All of the movements are so short that they are almost like those little humorous quotations that used to (still?) season the bottoms of text columns in The New Yorker. They are almost all in high spirits, the only exception being a memorial interlude recalling “the conductors and members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra no longer with us.” The BSO players also got to pull off a series of jokes about many of the composers in their repertoire, spanning the history of music from Ludwig van Beethoven to Igor Stravinsky. The whole affair was a delightful hoot given just the right upbeat account by Boreyko.

The divertimento was followed by Bernstein’s “Serenade after Plato’s ‘Symposium,’” composed in 1954. As was the case with the 1948 symphony named “The Age of Anxiety” after a long poem by W. H. Auden, any connection to literature (or, for that matter, philosophy) in the serenade is purely coincidental. The music is more about the spirit of an ancient Greek dinner party and the personality traits of the diners. By the time the score has progressed to its final movement, the party seems to have shifted from Athens to Manhattan.

Bernstein scored this piece for solo violin, strings, harp, and percussion. The solo was taken by Vadim Gluzman, who has also recorded a performance of this piece. Both he and Boreyko gave the score an honest account; but, when played after that divertimento, each of the serenade movements gave the impression of taking too much time to say what it had to say. Basically, this was music that came off as more serious than it needed to be (as anyone who had the pleasure to read Plato’s own account would have easily appreciated).

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