Wednesday, January 20, 2021
Jan. 20, 2021

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Vancouver Symphony ends season with two by Shostakovich

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Pianist Michael Liu will perform during the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s final concert of the season.
Pianist Michael Liu will perform during the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s final concert of the season. Photo Gallery

For its final concert of the season, the Vancouver Symphony will play two works of Dmitri Shostakovich, the legendary Russian composer who angered Stalin yet survived.

Shostakovich wrote all kinds of music, including piano pieces, chamber music, concertos, choral pieces, operas, film music, and 15 symphonies. His unique sonic world is noted for the mercurial way that it can quickly change from the sublimely elegant to the sardonically grotesque.

Under Music Director Salvador Brotons, the Vancouver Symphony has played a number of Shostakovich’s works, but this time, it will give audiences a double dose by playing his First and Fifteenth Symphonies. The orchestra played his First in 2005, and this will be its first performance of his Fifteenth.

“Musicians love to play Shostakovich, and I love to conduct his music,” said Brotons. “I chose these two symphonies because they are the first and the last ones that he wrote. Both have similar orchestration and show the intensity of a great composer, but they are very different. Shostakovich wrote the Symphony No. 1 when he was just 18 years old and graduating from music conservatory. It is surprising because of its freshness and innovative expression. He composed No. 15 when he was 65 years old and facing death.”

Shostakovich was already a formidable pianist as a teenager, and his First Symphony has a prominent piano part that will be played by Michael Liu, the orchestra’s pianist.

If You Go

• What: Vancouver Symphony plays Shostakovich for its season finale.

• When: 3 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday.

• Where: Skyview High School Concert Hall, 1300 N.W. 139th St., Vancouver.

• Cost: $50 for reserved seats, $37 for general admission, $32 for seniors and $10 for students.

“Shostakovich worked as a silent movie pianist in his teenage years — accompanying Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin movies — to help his mother to pay for the bills,” recalled Liu. “It may have influenced the style of the piano part in his First Symphony, especially in the second movement, where the part sounds like it should be played on a slightly out-of-tune upright in an old movie theater! Other passages for the piano can be thick or almost like chord clusters, and they are not easy to play while still being pianistic. He mixes both lyrical parts and percussive parts for the piano in this symphony.”

Igor Shakhman, the orchestra’s principal clarinetist and executive director, has had considerable experience in playing Shostakovich’s works.

“As a wind player, playing Shostakovich’s music is always very exciting and challenging,” remarked Shakhman. “Both the First and the Fifteenth contain numerous solos for flute, oboe, bassoon, clarinet, trumpet, and trombone. In fact, there will be plenty of work at this concert for virtually every instrument, including violin and cello. As far as the clarinet goes, it was one of the instruments that Shostakovich highlighted extensively throughout his career in almost every major work. Excerpts from Symphony No. 1 frequently appear on clarinet orchestra auditions lists in the U.S. and around the world.”

Like his colleagues, principal trumpeter Bruce Dunn has a leading role to play.

“The First Symphony opens up with the trumpet,” explained Dunn, “so I get to make the first statement — much like I did when we played Mahler’s Fifth. But I’ll be quickly joined by the bassoon and everyone. The orchestration is really great, and the beginning reminds me of Stravinsky.”

By the time Shostakovich finished Symphony No. 15, he had been censured twice by Soviet leaders and suffered from chronic ill health that was probably exacerbated by smoking and vodka consumption. Yet despite these difficulties, he could still interlace somber passages with witty ones, and he sprinkled the Fifteenth with quotes from Wagner and Rossini.

“Shostakovich’s Fifteenth contain quotes from Wagner because of the fate motif from the ‘Ring Cycle’ as well as from ‘Tristan and Isolde,’ ” explained Brotons. “And both motifs are associated with death. The Rossini quotes from ‘William Tell’ have childhood connotations.”

For the Fifteenth, Liu will shift over to the celesta.

“The celesta part has many passages throughout the symphony but does not play in the first movement,” noted Liu. “There is plenty of counting to do as there are many measures of rests, then brief moments of playing either a few notes that add to the atmosphere and a few solo-line lyrical passages. Like the percussionists, you have to know how to anticipate beats and the exact placement of when to play after the downward stroke of the conductor’s baton.”

But aside from the ins and outs of performing Shostakovich’s music, the orchestra actually has a personal connection to him via Shakhman. That’s because Shakhman’s teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, Vladimir Sokolov, was the solo clarinetist with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra for 30 years.

“Sokolov would often tell about his conversation with Shostakovich that happened during a rehearsal of the Fifteenth,” recalled Shakhman. “At the rehearsal break, Shostakovich made his way to the back of the orchestra to compliment Sokolov on his thoughtful interpretation of the clarinet solos. The great composer was very appreciative of Sokolov’s beautiful sound and his brilliant technique. They spoke for a while, and Sokolov asked Shostakovich to compose a concerto for clarinet and orchestra.

“Shostakovich was very touched by this request and replied that he would absolutely love to compose a solo work specifically for Sokolov, but unfortunately he was not feeling very well and he had too many projects to complete on a short deadline. However, Shostakovich told Sokolov to go ahead and to transcribe some of his solos to make them into separate pieces for clarinet and piano. Sokolov was very inspired by this conversation and eagerly began working on this project.

“A short time later, he came up with a beautiful album of transcriptions for clarinet and piano based on Shostakovich’s music. Sokolov was immensely proud of these pieces and often included them in his and his students’ recitals. The great composer heard those pieces and was very happy with how it was done,” Shakhman said.

There you have it, a direct connection — once removed — to one of the greatest composers who ever lived.

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