Salerno-Sonnenberg Returns

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach, Conductor
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Violin

Saturday, August 1, 2009
4:30 PM
Donor Gates Open
5:00 PM
Public Gates Open
7:30 PM
Concert Starts
Reserved $55/$35/$25
Lawn $10


All-Shostakovich program:
     Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 99
      Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47

 "One of the few classical artists who must be experienced in person." 
- The Washington Post

Program Notes

Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 77

Solomon Volkov related in his controversial Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich how the Jewish Cycle, the fourth string quartet and the first violin concerto grew out of the composer’s sympathy for the Jewish struggle against anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union and the deadly oppression in Nazi Germany. Shostakovich stated that the “Jews became the most persecuted and defenseless people of Europe. It was a return to the Middle Ages. Jews became a symbol for me. All of man’s defenselessness was concentrated in them. After the war, I tried to convey that feeling in my music.”

If Volkov’s information is accurate (there is no direct evidence to refute or support his contention), then Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 invokes the Jewish spirit only in a general sense. Quoted or simulated Jewish themes are not present, although distinct touches of ethnic flavor occur in the second and final movements. The Jewish subtext may partly explain why Shostakovich confined the Op. 77 Concerto—composed between July 21, 1947, and March 24, 1948—to his desk drawer. Charges of “formalism in music” were leveled against Shostakovich at the First Congress of the Union of Soviet Composers in January 1948. Similar indictments had arisen in 1936 during earlier Stalinist purges. The first violin concerto would have to wait for more favorable times.

Shostakovich unveiled the concerto after Stalin’s death in 1953 and the subsequent easing of official artistic control. At the time of the 1955 premiere, Oistrakh wrote, “The concerto is a real challenge to the soloist: it may be likened to a major role, very profound, a Shakespearian role, demanding from the artist the greatest emotional and intellectual dedication.” Minor changes were made before Muzgiz published the concerto in 1956 erroneously as Op. 99. Shostakovich invariably referred to the score as Op. 77 and applied Op. 99 to his music for the 1956 film The First Echelon.

Shostakovich favored a four-movement construction in the Violin Concerto No. 1 over the Classically conceived threefold division. The Nocturne creates a sense of foreboding in the dark orchestral sonorities and restless meandering of the solo instrument. The playful Scherzo pits the solo violin against the flute and bass clarinet. A four-note bass pattern gains importance, eventually materializing as a transposition of Shostakovich’s motto (D, E-flat, C and B-natural). A crude march, which adopts this four-note pattern, is interrupted by a parody of a militaristic march.

A bass melody 17 measures in length provides the framework for the Passacaglia. The solo violin enters at the third repetition, adding an imploring countermelody. The repetitions become more impassioned, reaching a climax as the violin assumes the passacaglia melody. Two more statements quietly segue into the monolithic solo cadenza, which leads directly into the finale. The Burlesque bustles with folk-like vigor. Shostakovich injects his inimitable defiant wit into this rondo movement.

Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47

An urgent message came over the New York Times wire in 1937 from Soviet correspondent Harold Denny. “COMPOSER REGAINS HIS PLACE IN SOVIET. Dmitri Shostakovich, who fell from grace two years ago, on the way to rehabilitation. His new symphony hailed. Audience cheers as Leningrad Philharmonic presents work.” Although Aram Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto also received its premiere on that late-November concert, it was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 that brought the audience to its feet. The diminutive, bespectacled composer walked onstage dozens of times to acknowledge the thunderous ovation. One audience member, A.N. Glumov, recalled conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky’s grandiose, selfless gesture: “[He] lifted the score high above his head, so as to show that it was not he, the conductor, or the orchestra who deserved this storm of applause, these shouts of ‘bravo’; the success belonged to the creator of this work.”

This music offered more than rehabilitation. It was a glorious resurrection for the recently beleaguered Shostakovich. His troubles began on January 28, 1936, when Pravda printed an aggressive attack against his recent (and popularly acclaimed) opera Lady Macbeth. Titled “Muddle instead of Music,” this article condemned the “Leftist confusion instead of natural, human music. The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, Formalist attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.” So it did for Shostakovich and other “formalist” composers. The Union of Soviet Composers convened in February and publicly denounced Shostakovich. This official act of humiliation initiated Soviet persecution of progressive artists and musicians, which lasted throughout the Stalin years.

Shostakovich reclaimed some credibility with his Symphony No. 5, known as “the creative reply of a Soviet artist to justified criticism” (a subtitle belonging to a journalist, not the composer). Not all party officials were convinced by the people’s enthusiasm for the work. Some complained openly at the concert hall that the audience had been hand-selected for the premiere, and their ovation was therefore viewed with skepticism. Others doubted that the young composer could “rehabilitate” in such a short period. Shostakovich kept party criticism at bay by announcing plans for a Sixth Symphony dedicated to Lenin. Twenty-four years passed before he composed the Symphony No. 12 (“The Year 1917”) to Lenin’s memory.

In the wake of Soviet censures, Shostakovich cultivated a type of musical schizophrenia wherein he proclaimed public ideals through the symphonic form, while submerging his private thoughts in the personal string quartet medium. (By the end of his life, he had written an equal number of symphonies and quartets—15.) However, the Fifth retained vaguely autobiographical meaning for the composer. “The theme of my symphony is the making of man. I saw man with all his experiences in the center of the composition, which is lyrical in form from beginning to end. The finale is the optimistic solution of the tragically tense moment of the first movement.”

Shostakovich’s opening Moderato initially dwells on imitative (“Formalist”) treatment of a contorted theme characterized by melodic leaps, chromatic harmonies and dotted rhythms. Violins offer the second theme, a slow-moving melody accompanied by long-short-short rhythms in the lower strings. The development begins with an ostinato played by the piano and an ominous descending horn melody. Excitement builds steadily as the music accelerates. A militaristic section enters, complete with snare drum. Close imitation based on the opening theme merges with the fortissimo recapitulation. A flute quietly restates the contrasting theme, and the music fades toward the end.

The Allegretto is the scherzo movement. Cellos and double basses begin a triple-meter dance. Woodwinds then introduce enthusiastic dotted rhythms, and the horns add a heroic strain. The trio begins with a solo violin melody. A relatively complete version of the scherzo follows. The coda harks back to the trio theme.

Reduced instrumentation—lacking brass and most percussion—and subdivided strings reinforce the Largo’s introspective quality. Shostakovich advances several lyrical themes toward the cause of extended symphonic contemplation. The march-like final movement explodes with pounding timpani and blaring brass, disturbing the slow movement’s sustained tranquility. Repetitious long-short-short rhythmic patterns build to the loud string and woodwind theme. A French horn soliloquy restores lyricism to the symphony. Strings sustain this melodious tranquility. The march theme begins slowly, then accelerates for the triumphant D-major conclusion.

— Program notes © Todd E. Sullivan  2009