Friday, October 17, 2014

Anthony Tommasini Misses the Point

The Web site for The New York Times has the review by Anthony Tommasini of the performance given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, which will appear in tomorrow print edition. This was the same program that was given here in San Francisco this past Monday night. I was particularly struck that Tommasini used the adjective "enigmatic" to describe Dmitri Shostakovich's Opus 65 symphony in C minor (his eighth). I have heard this symphony described in many ways, but never as enigmatic.

Perhaps this was because Tommasini tried to take a context-free approach to it. This would overlook two critical elements of context that are at least somewhat connected. The more important is one that Scott Foglesong raised in a pre-concert talk the last time this symphony was performed by the San Francisco Symphony. Foglesong provided the context of the agonizingly prolonged battles between the Soviet armed forces and the invading Nazis. By the time Shostakovich completed Opus 65 in September of 1943, Russia had lived through both Leningrad and Stalingrad; and I tend to agree with Foglesong that Shostakovich had a strong case of war-weariness when it worked on this symphony. This then takes us to the second point of context, which is Shostakovich's interest in Gustav Mahler, a perfect source of inspiration when contemplating the sorrows of the world and man's helplessness in the face of all of them.

Here in San Francisco, Music Director Vladimir Jurowski's interpretation of Opus 65 seemed to register with much of the audience in Davies with little difficulty. Indeed, during the intermission of the piano recital I attended on Tuesday night, it seemed as if almost everyone wanted to share their impressions of Opus 65, rather than talk about the recitalist. Tommasini is probably right in claiming that the premiere performance of Opus 65 "baffled audiences and the autocratic Soviet officials who oversaw culture." My personal opinion is that the latter group of listeners were too dense to get the message, while the former group dared not do so. We, on the other hand, have the advantages of a broader view of history and the freedom to think what we wish. If nothing about Opus 65 left San Francisco audiences perplexed, why was Tommasini sympathizing with the Russians?

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