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Live Review: Brute and Beautiful – Petrenko & Shostakovich @ the BSO (2009.01.31)

vasily_petrenkoWith supple force, sometimes delicate, sometimes with iron fist, conductor Vasily Petrenko (pictured left) gave the BSO players room to conquer.

Riffs mounting to tensions that a lesser composer, say John Williams, would have to barter his soul for. And that was just the Shostakovich. “O a steep, stiff drink,” we all cried.  For after the Shostakovich #8, our souls were burning amber embers. Smoldering under a brute glory from Russia’s darkest days: 1943. Think Guernica in five movements.

But first, let me say I am proud to live in a city where on one Saturday night, I had to choose between hearing Shosta’s #8 at the Meyerhoff, Shosta’s #10 at Peabody, or avant-garde jazz at An Die Musik. ‘Tis the season. Don’t miss the glut of live music going on now.

I don’t regret my decision at all. One musician (who shall remain nameless and sectionless) prayed that Mr. Petrenko would come again, saying: “Sometimes this symphony is all dressed up with nowhere to go.” But the places they went that night!

We started off in short tone poem territory: Liadov’s Kikimora. Beautiful warm-up work for the cor anglais. Rollicking pizzicato with a touch of whirlwind ends in a little flirt of flute. With that appetizer, you knew the first plate would astound.

Pianist Stephen Hough (Wiki) took on Tchiacovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1. He banished dreams of sugar plums straight from our heads. Hough’s matter of fact exactitude resounded against the lush open of the strings. His whole air radiated: “Me, I’m the boss.”

Petrenko employed claw and fist, just as seamlessly conducting with his left pinky. The second and third movements rocked unbroken with dance-like whim and rowdy trombone. Then comes the war symphony!

First movement: a groundswell of cello shakes the front seats and the screaming violins of the outside row take up a relentless line. Shostakovich, unlike Tchiacovsky, keeps the big guns in reserve. The woodwinds enter. Emphatic percussion snaps out with high, tight rimfire drumming. Pentrenko’s right shoulder jerks seem like a constructivist poster come to life. A xylophone cues up some drunken brass. Then cor anglais sounds alone – or does it? You realize that the lightest pressure on the strings backs it up (it’s not your own heart palpitating). Enter dueling birds: notable piccolo by Laurie Sokoloff. The bird flute gets a little drumroll into some lonely timpani.

By the third movement the birds scream in full terror, like those circling Oedipal heads. Trombones bow before relentless violas. Bows strike the bass bodies. There’s a Dmitrian moment of ironic, horse-racy jazz cheerfulness. But every motif vanishes before you get used to it — filling you with longing until the next shiver of terror from the violas. One strike of the xylophone. All abandoned into a fade of soft strings. Pizzicato and purling woodwinds, the mood brightens. There’s even a triangle’s tingle, before Petrenko plunges them into the thick of a 41-measure-long crescendo of brute violence.

Shostakovich #8 is about one thing: Might. The self, the “I,” is but an errant spark from a warhammer, one of millions, scattered and snuffed out on the wind.

Dmitri has us look a dictator in the face and cry. No wonder Stalin didn’t like it. In the almost-balm of the fifth movement, bassoons swoon and lilt. Edward Palanker mans a bass clarinet whose song is one of survival (but just barely). A sweet, sweaty face gazing into the soul of another; about 10 minutes in Jonathan Carney goes high and sweet on the violin. Finkelshteyn matches him on cello. Carney calls softly back — hard-won hope shines — before we creep away among the basses.

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One Response to “Live Review: Brute and Beautiful – Petrenko & Shostakovich @ the BSO (2009.01.31)”

  1. Erik K. says:

    Nice quotes in here. Sorry I missed it!

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