November 16, 2004

Armistice Day piece probes personal, presidential

Last Thursday, November 11, marked the 86th anniversary of the end of the First World War—Veterans' Day in the good old US of A, Remembrance Day in the U.K., and Armistice Day everywhere else. Perhaps commemorating peace isn't in the air these dark days, but I didn't remember the occasion either, until about 9 p.m., when the CSO began to play Shostakovich's 8th Symphony.

This symphony was written in 1943, at a time when the world was wishing it still had the time to commemorate peace accords. The piece is uncomfortable in its own skin: It is grossly lopsided, has the most extreme orchestral range possible, and leaps from theme to theme with schizophrenic haste. The tensions within the piece nearly elevate it outside the realm of music—if we could reconcile the calm of a single English horn with the onslaught of the oversized orchestra, well, the world might be a better place.

But of course the Eighth Symphony remains music, and Shostakovich's frustration with that fact is palpable throughout the piece. The reality he constructs is not the one in which he lived, and that is why he is an Artist. This musical reality does not endure past the end of the piece, and the piece itself is heavy with that knowledge.

The Eighth is his second wartime symphony, his first being the Seventh. The Seventh depicts the 900-day siege of Leningrad with sickly comic repetition and monotony— the first movement is over a half-hour, 20 minutes of which are spent beating out one single rhythm like machine gun fire. The Seventh, written in 1941, is, however, a triumphant piece. In the end, adversity is overcome. The piece's path did not match history's.

But symphonies can't be played as though they are mere fantasy. I don't think that you could have convinced the CSO, under the direction of Semyon Bychkov, that these 70 minutes of Shostakovich's Eighth remained music. They played with the conviction that the version they created was uncontestable. When Shostakovich ends the piece with his eerie folk-song peace-dance, World War Two has ended for a moment.

(I should insert here that the first half of the concert was the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, interpreted by CSO principal clarinetist, Larry Combs. The orchestra ate him alive, they were so hungry for the second half. He could hardly keep up, and his performance was truly dull compared to the crisp, delicate accompaniment by an orchestra who had better things to play.)

Shostakovich's music has a deeply subversive power. He soaks each passage in about eight or ten levels of signification, and these signifiers float freely from one signified object to the next. He conjures an immense field of meanings that are both impossible and contradictory. Putting into words what he means to say with his music is folly. Each listener is forced to invest the music with personal (that is to say, concrete) meaning. I, myself, was unable to disregard the sick irony of playing Shostakovich's Eighth—on Armistice Day!—when Captain Cowboy is running rampant in the world.

And when the conductor takes the stage and observes a moment of silence (already a part of the music), the listener is forced to choose: Will Dmitri have his say? It is a human choice, with Shostakovich. You are forced to decide to hear him or ignore him.

You could, instead of hearing him out, deny his dogged, insistent mania. Shostakovich is a take-him-or-leave-him composer. His extreme dissonances, his apparent lack of form, his stripped, naked moments, everything which makes Shostakovich a Great Man and a Great Musician can be rebuked and turned away. Ignoring Shostakovich may be easier for some than engaging with him

But if one moment, one singular nugget of music grabs you, then he's got you. To accept any one sound of his is to accept the whole damned symphony—hence his subversion. Shostakovich is dangerous music, because his internal logic is so strong. The feeling of trust and adoration slips into his listeners, and all of a sudden we find ourselves all agreeing.

I don't know if the CSO was just out-of-this world fantastic, or if we were all under the same spell. I left ecstatic, and am left ecstatic. I was altogether present during the concert, and the vision of peace so beautifully constructed in the final movement of the symphony was utterly believable. Even though the past 86 years haven't provided much hope for peace, Shostakovich somehow opened the way out.

Semyon Bychkov is an exacting, meticulous conductor. He has rock-solid rhythm and an ear for color. He ripped open Shostakovich's score and ate it whole. The CSO followed him with enthusiasm and trust—Shostakovich convinced Bychkov, Bychkov convinced the CSO, and the CSO convinced me:

Fuck Bush. What was he up to on Armistice Day? Off spending political capital where his money is no good. I was at the CSO, and I heard a world I'd rather live in.