Saturday, October 7, 2017

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Krzysztof Urbański, a young guest artist who occasionally would stop doing anything recognizable as conducting and just dance in place on the podium, led a solid meaty program of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and Shostakovich's Tenth. The soloist was the equally young (early 30s) Augustin Hadelich, who belied his Stradivarius with a dry, unresonant tone. But his phrasing was urgently energetic and made for a brisk, winning performance.

Same could be said for Urbański, whose Shostakovich wasn't so much big or powerful as it was propelled, even in the quiet sections featuring lone wind instruments wandering around in the desert. No matter how low the stove was turned, the skillet was always simmering.

But there was one other piece on the program: Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima by Krzysztof Penderecki. Now that choice was interesting, and not just for the conductor's Polish boosterism. When I was first learning classical music in the early 70s, the Threnody, which was written in 1960 when the composer was 26, was considered the hottest and most significant thing in contemporary music. I have here, for instance, a Basic Record Library suggestion list put out by the Schwann catalog ca. 1970, and of the works or series of works marked with stars, meaning "we feel [they] are really basic," only two date entirely from after 1946, and one of them is Penderecki's Threnody.1 But I haven't heard much about it since then, which is even more striking considering that Penderecki, who is still alive, has remained one of Poland's leading composers - indeed, now that Lutosławski and Górecki are dead, indisputably its greatest living one. It's rather more avant-garde than his later work, and might be passed off as a youthful over-enthusiasm.

In truth, I'd hoped the Threnody had gone away for good. It's a work for string orchestra that consists of some nine minutes of the most painful possible dissonant held chords, interspersed with patches of chaotic noise. The juxtaposition of that music with the full title ("threnody" is Greek for "wailing ode") implies, as does John Corigliano's symphony in memory of AIDS victims, that since the victims of Hiroshima suffered, then by gum the listener is going to suffer too. And if that sounds offensively bathetic, the fault lies not with the commentator who points it out, but with the composer who invites the comparison in the first place.

At this point some smartass will undoubtably point out that Penderecki wrote the music first and came up with the title afterwards. But that's no defense. In that case, Penderecki was putting his listeners through this gauntlet not to honor the victims of Hiroshima but for no reason whatever.

Whatever its extramusical connotation, the fact is that listening to the Threnody, and other such works thrust at me by sources like the Basic Record Library, back in 1970, is what convinced me that the kind of contemporary music they were pushing was worthless crap, and set me off on my long quest to find better stuff, and I'm pleased to see that more recent music appreciation guides have also taken a more balanced approach.

With works like, for instance, Shostakovich's Tenth, a mere seven years older than the Threnody, but which is not named in the Basic Record Library.2 It's since risen to be considered the greatest of mid-20C symphonies, but it didn't stand out in 1970. But listen to it. It's got anguish, it's got despair, it's got tragedy; but it's also beautiful and meaningful, it speaks to rather than assaults the listener. The two goals are not antithetical, and this work proves it. If it took the threat of Soviet persecution to make Shostakovich write this way, that's merely ironic. He did turn out forelock-tugging junk, but he also wrote this. He understood that the job of art in the face of suffering is to be centripetal:3 to hold the world together rather than break it apart.

And that's why, some half a century later, Shostakovich's Tenth lives, while Penderecki's Threnody, which I'd never heard live before,4 has been reduced to a curtain-raiser for a Polish conductor who wants to wave the flag, and sounds even more ridiculous when immediately succeeded by the conventionally gentle strains of Mendelssohn.

1. The other is the series of Synchronisms by Mario Davidovsky, something else that's fallen off the cultural chatter list in the interim. The cross-threshold series are the songs of Poulenc and the symphonies of Shostakovich, of which the only post-1946 one specified is the 14th, then brand-new.
2. The Shostakovich symphonies are cited, but the 10th is not among the ones specified.
3. A useful word I got from Bernard Levin, who used it in a passionate article making this same point in 1983.
4. It's been played only once previously by SFS, by Ozawa in 1977, when absurdities like it were still fashionable. Ozawa once played George Crumb and literally got laughed at for his trouble.

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