CSO, Rostropovich finds meaning works by Dutillex, Shostakovich

By Peter Kupfer

According to Solomon Volkov, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony “has a clear ‘subplot’: confrontation between artist and tyrant. The wild, frightening Scherzo [the second movement]…is a musical portrait of Stalin.” Yet Elena Basner—the daughter of Shostakovich’s close friend Veniamin Basner—is “sorry for those who are told…that “the scherzo of the Tenth Symphony was conceived as a musical portrait of Stalin!” What a primitive, protozoan level of understanding! And how vulgar.”

These divergent readings highlight one of the main dilemmas surrounding Shostakovich: What does his music “mean?” What, for that matter, does any music “mean?” The Chicago Symphony Orchestra threw itself firmly into the mix on Thursday evening with its program of works by Henri Dutilleux and Shostakovich.

The first half of the concert was devoted to Dutilleux, a French composer born in 1916 (and close friend of guest conductor Mstislav Rostropovich). This friendship inspired the work which opened the evening, Fanfare for Slava, composed in 1997 as a 70th birthday tribute to Rostropovich. It is a short, five-minute work for piccolos, trumpets, trombones and percussion—with the brass, for this performance, stationed in Orchestra Hall’s lower balcony. This arrangement underscored the antiphonal calls and responses in the piece, which could be described as Gabrieli meets Lutoslawski. A short and sweet opener, the Fanfare—as its name implies—called the concert to attention.

Commissioned by Rostropovich for the National Symphony Orchestra in 1978, Dutilleux’s Timbres, espace, mouvement aims to portray Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night in sound. The painting had “fascinated and haunted” Dutilleux for many years, and when he finally saw it in person, he felt he was able to “translate into music the feeling of exultation, or perhaps even delirium, in this picture.” It is scored for full orchestra (including a battery of percussion) minus violins and violas.

Starting with perhaps the most appropriate technique for a musical translation of visuals, the work opens with a pointillist Webernian Klangfarbenmelodie, strongly influenced by the coloristic effects of Debussian harmony. This idea continues throughout the first movement, the timbre constantly shifting in color and volume (much like the nighttime sky twists and turns in van Gogh’s painting). The second movement interlude—though scored for cellos only—manages to maintain the wide range of timbres through features like expansive use of range and pizzicato. Under the passionate baton of the great cellist, the CSO cello section wonderfully teased out these differences.

The final movement continues in the vein of the first, juxtaposing waves of tone color, played with technical prowess and shimmering exuberance by the CSO winds and brass. In one particularly poignant moment, a single pitch is passed from the French horn to the English horn to the bassoon. The CSO players matched each other magnificently. So subtle were the differences in timbre that had it not been a live performance, recognizing the transitions would have been difficult. After a final flare of tympani, the orchestra merges to end the work in unison. One could say that this final union resembles the sensation of stepping back from a painting after a close viewing—just as the timbres of individual instruments are subsumed by the full unison, so, too, do the individual details of form and color merge into the unified whole that is The Starry Night.

The two outer movements—both of which begin as mysterious adagios that build to highly dramatic climaxes—bookend the wild second movement scherzo and enigmatic third movement “waltz.” The symphony is marked as a whole by ponderous melodies that often cannot really get their feet off the ground because some other musical idea jumps in the way. For this reason, it is really shorter motives that make the lasting impression. Of these, the most poignant is Shostakovich’s musical monogram: D-S-C-H. By composing his monogram into this symphony, written on the heels of Stalin’s death, Shostakovich has left us in an interpretive conundrum, as evidenced by the remarks above. Unlike Dutilleux, Shostakovich has not provided us with an explicit program for the music. Are we to believe that the symphony is a direct response to or a critique of Stalin? If so, how literal is the association?

What is less questionable is that the Tenth Symphony is a work of incredible emotional content. As one of Shostakovich’s closest personal friends and erstwhile countrymen, Rostropovich knows this firsthand. The visible passion he displayed on the podium (an amazing feat for a 77-year-old, in and of itself) was reciprocated by the orchestra, which played with an immediacy and energy I have not experienced for some time. The players, in both the solo and tutti sections, responded to Rostropovich’s articulate motions with technical and expressive perfection. Even the typically noisy CSO audience was able to suppress its coughing until between movements.

Ultimately, it seems less important to me whether or not one believes that Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony has a “clear ‘subplot,'” or whether Timbres, espace, mouvement “sounds” like “The Starry Night.” What is important is that we are each able to determine what this music “means” for ourselves. Is that not, after all, what keeps us going back to the concert hall time after time?