Thursday, March 12, 2020

Shostakovich's 11th the Loudest Thing Ever? Maybe...

Robert Trevino (c) Lisa Hancock
On Feb 22 the Oregon Symphony welcomed first-time conductor Robert Trevino, who had the titanic task of bringing to life Shostakovich's Symphony No 11 in G minor, "The Year 1905," which was (ostensibly) written in memoriam to the heroes of that last great Russian revolution before the big one finally succeeded in 1917.

But first, after a brief piece Icarus in Orbit by George Walker, was a work at the polar opposite of the Shostakovich stylistically speaking, the Violin Concerto in A Minor by Gian Carlo Menotti, with concert master Sarah Kwak taking on solo duties.

There was no big intro to the Menotti, just a sudden but not sharp attack by Kwak. A persistent, hopscotching saltando gave way to a gentle, stirring serenade. Kwak's insight was fantastic--almost bordering on understated but never giving way to tiresomeness. Very much the opposite--there was tremendous variety in her phrasing, and inventive emotive intent was her hallmark.  The Adagio opened with a resounding timbre worthy of the famed Kreisler concerto. The extended orchestral tacets gave Kwak all the room she needed to explore, and I'm sure I was not the only one who felt like listening to her solo all evening.
Sarah Kwak

The Shostakovich, on the other hand...suffice it to say this was an entirely different animal. Lurking and mysterious at the outset, the presage to the bloodshed imparted a sense of brooding, of impending action.  This tautness was difficult to sustain for long periods and yet keep interesting--several minutes with nothing but pianissimo timpani and snare drum with an occasional melody instrument peeping through--and yet rather than dulling, the tension increased.

Then the action began! A frenetic, tutti battaglia--the timpanist was a master of understatement, and there was terrific work from the brass choir, especially the trumpets, unafraid of getting their hands dirty. There were throaty molto fortissimi that almost defied description, and Trevino did a marvelous job of instilling balance with a hundred people playing with all their might. The heart-pounding excitement from the percussion cannot be overstated.

In the third movement there was awesomely menacing stuff from low brass and winds. Balance issues became a factor later as the unmuted trumpets simply overpowered the strings--there's only so much noise you can wring out of the strings before the trumpets just have to quiet down a bit.  There were long savory staccatissimo passages from bass and cello--horsehair was flying all over the stage.  The English horn solo in the finale was exquisitely rubato, and Trevino kept mysteriously directing the one soloist  (who did not need it) while ignoring the 2 harps and  30 violins who were desperately trying (and failing) to keep their pizzicato entrances on the beat. Sometimes the conductor needs to be a metronome, and the strings were the ones who needed a metronome at that moment, not the masterful cor anglais soloist.

That being said, the entire experience was exquisite. The tuned bell plates at the end (or to use the much more satisfying term, plattenglocken ) were so horrifyingly loud (in a good way) that the harpists were desperately cramming in ear plugs. The finale was certainly one of the loudest unamplified musical experiences I've ever heard, and I reveled in the sheer, childish joy of just hearing so much unalloyed, unapologetic noise!  I'm sure I was laughing because it was so fun, but believe me, no one heard.

Portland audiences are known for being extremely appreciative, something which I believe is a mark of pride for our city, but I have seldom seen so many curtain calls or such enthusiastic applause, as Trevino came out again and again and again to acknowledge each section and certain soloists, and when the percussion stood to be recognized the huzzahs almost blew the roof off the Schnitz.  This was the most fun I've had in a long time, and you just can't experience this kind of thing without going to hear live music.

1 comment:

Rene said...

Thanks for this lovely write-up.

I saw the Sunday matinee of this program at The Schnitz and I must say that it moved me deeply, especially the 11th! I have witnessed the awesomeness of Mahler's Auferstehungssymphony in Antwerp Belgium with an almost completely Jewish audience, but OR Symphony's performance under guidance of Robert Trevino is the best classical music experience I've had. It wasn't perfect, but the tremendous release of anguish, relief and exasperation at the end of Shostakovich' brutal masterpiece more than made up for it.