Many readers probably know that I have been enthusiastically awaiting the visit of Karina Canellakis to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) ever since she made history this past July as the first woman to conduct the First Night of the BBC Proms series in London. Last night she made her SFS debut with an all-Russian program, which also featured the SFS debut of pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk. The evening began with Gavrylyuk playing Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 10 (first) piano concert in D-flat major. Following the intermission, the rest of the program was devoted to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 60 (seventh) symphony, dedicated “To the City of Leningrad,” where Shostakovich was living, because, while he was working on the symphony, on September 8, 1941, Nazi forces surrounded the city, beginning a siege that would not conclude until January 17, 1944.
Prokofiev himself played the piano solo at the premiere of his Opus 10 on August 7, 1912. He was still a student at the time, and the performance took place in a suburb of Moscow. The orchestra was led by the Armenian conductor Konstantin Saradzhev, who had previously premiered compositions by both Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Modest Mussorgsky. The piece lasted only about a quarter of an hour, consisting of three movements played without interruption.
As might be expected, Prokofiev wrote this concerto as a platform for his own virtuosity. However, it also served up a heady dose of provocative modernism, particularly with the ostinato rhythm that hammers away incessantly at the keyboard (at least changing pitch from time to time) for over 25 measures before passing the baton to the orchestra. After the pianist has caught his breath, he then launches into a more diverse array of technical challenges, each one trickier than its predecessor.
All this made for quite an array of fireworks that must have provided Prokofiev with the sort of bully pulpit he had in mind. Gavrylyuk clearly had the necessary technical chops to light the fuse for each of the fireworks that Prokofiev had served. The intensity he brought to his solo work was perfectly matched by Canellakis’ management of instrumental accompaniment, much of which was there to provide the pianist with a context of richly and diversely colored sonorities. One could almost accuse Prokofiev of having fashioned an experience deliberately intended to make the listeners stand up and shout “Bravo!” after the definitive final cadence. Last night’s audience did, indeed, respond that way, almost as if they had been conditioned by Ivan Pavlov himself!
That audience would not let Gavrylyuk get away without taking an encore. Sensibly, he recognized that a bit of quietude was in order. He performed “Von fremden Ländern und Menschen” (of foreign lands and peoples), the first piece in Robert Schumann’s Opus 15 Kinderszenen (scenes from childhood) collection. (Russia was, after all, one of Schumann’s “foreign lands.”) However, this encore also served as the lull prior to the uneasy storms that would follow the intermission.
When Shostakovich began his work on Opus 60 on July 15, 1941, the storm had already begun. The Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941, initially targeting the Baltic territories, Moscow, and the Ukraine. Shostakovich could not serve in the army due to his poor eyesight. However, he volunteered to serve as a fireman. After the siege of Leningrad had begun, there is a famous photograph (that made it to the cover of Time magazine) showing him (on the right below) putting out a fire at the Leningrad Conservatory:
The symphony is probably best known for the extended repetition of a simple march theme that serves as the core of the first movement. Some have compared it to the gradual buildup of Nazi forces after the initial occupation of the Soviet Union. Shostakovich, himself, claimed that the music represented the way in which war gradually invaded the lives of public citizens, barely noticeable at first (a pianissimo snare drum tattoo, played with just the right underlying tension by Jacob Nissly) and ultimately taking over every instrument in the orchestra (including the brass resources of eight horns, six trumpets, six trombones, and tuba).
Structurally, this will probably remind most listeners of “Bolero.” I have yet to encounter any evidence that Shostakovich may have had Ravel in mind. On the other hand the theme that emerges above the snare drum seems to have provided Shostakovich with an opportunity for ironic prankishness. As I previously observed, the second half of the theme sounds like an unabashed quotation of “Da geh' ich zu Maxim” (you’ll find me at Maxim’s), sung by Count Danilo Danilovitsch in Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow! (Shostakovich’s son, whose name happens to be Maxim, has affirmed that “borrowing” from Lehár was, indeed, on Shostakovich’s mind.) Nevertheless, it is clear that irony served as a thick skin to desensitize the all-too-real agonies of the Nazi invasion.
Each of the four movements has its own set of rather straightforward themes, all of which benefit from the many imaginative approaches that Shostakovich could take to instrumentation. All of those techniques were clearly evident through Canellakis’ spot-on command of balanced resources across the entire ensemble. There was even a bit of dramatization when the final movement concludes by recalling the very opening theme. The entire brass section is given pride of place for this moment. They happened to be sitting in two rows, with three trumpets and three trombones in each row. During the final statement of the theme, the players in the rear row stood up, providing a sort of visual affirmation of Leningrad’s spirit of persistence in the face of austerity at its darkest. This may have been a bit of a cliché, but the visual experience simply reinforced the message delivered by the music.