Saturday, April 01, 2006


Rather a more geeky and strange 13 year old than most, I was always exploring new and different things with a wide-eyed passion. I was different, I knew it and thus I never wanted to follow the crowd, opting for the fabled path less taken. This path has led me to many revelations and a fair number of disappointments as well, but the journey has usually been worth it.

Thus, one day, I decided to tune the radio to the newly emerging "Public Radio" station and see what was on. This "longhair" music, as my mother called it, was playing. Kind of slow and dark, a few patches of light and percussion, mostly strings it seemed. Moody and intense. I was absolutely enthralled. Then the radio erupted; violent, slashing strings, a screaming clarinet playing faster than I ever could, snare drums, trumpets, was over in a few minutes. NO!! I must hear it again..What is this?? Another piece started, again more slowly but a bit more bouncy, and cute section with triangles. Was it the same work? I knew classical music had many parts and was longer than the average song but where was this going? A final piece started slow but built to a glorious climax, I could just see the all players blowing their horns and slashing the strings. A whirlwind close and then silence. I was breathless.

Thus began my love affair with the Shostakovich 10th Symphony, 36 years ago... I remember as if it were yesterday. That piece solidified my desire to explore classical music, a desire that lasts undiminished even today. A strange entrance into the world of classical music, but one I am glad I made.

Unfortunately, I had to wait those 36 years to hear the piece live. Last night's Kansas City Symphony performance was certainly worth the wait. Stern has whipped the orchestra into a fine ensemble. He has done wonders with the brass (albeit they need to be tamed just a bit, they can overwhelm at times) but the winds are spectacular. One thing the 10th needs is a strong woodwind section for the many important, exposed lines for clarinet, piccolo, flute and oboe. With only a minor piccolo slip, they were brilliant.

Well chosen tempi allowed piece to breathe and to seem shorter than its 45 minutes. The superbly realized first movement, Stern nailed its varying moods and slowly unfolding climax, was aided by the warm, lyrical strings even if I longed for a larger sound that a bigger section could bring to the more dense climaxes.

The celebrated scherzo, supposedly Shostakovich's depiction of the now deceased madman Stalin, was taken at a brisk tempo and was well executed (although I sensed the strings rushing a bit but they were quickly corralled). The brass and winds slashed and burned, and Stalin in all his mad glory loomed large. A success.

The haunting nocturne 3rd movement with its clarion horn calls offered little respite to the overall bitter and defiant mood of the symphony. Again, the solo winds carried the performance. The interrupting "Janisary Waltz" (I can think of no other way to describe it) was handled organically, you could hear its relationship to the rest of the movement, something I have not always noted.

The defining moment for me was the finale's climactic statement of the composer's musical monogram (DSCH), handled with thrilling defiance. Four notes symbolizing Shostakovich's lifetime of struggle and sly disobedience.

I left fulfilled, hoping I do not have to wait 36 more years to hear this masterpiece. I may hear more technically polished performances from recordings, or maybe from another orchestra, but none will ever mean more to me than this one...and that radio broadcast 36 years ago.

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