Preview: BSO ‘An Artist’s Reply’ @ The Great Hall

Featuring arguably the three greatest Russian composers in history, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra have set themselves the ambitious task of bringing the music of all three together in one concert, tonight. These are a suite from Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and Dmitri Shostakovich’s fifth symphony. This concert also provides a rare opportunity to see world-class pianist Kirill Gerstein perform. Described as ‘one of the most respected pianists of his generation’ by the New York Times, Gerstein is a recipient of the Gilmore Artist Award, and regularly plays with the world’s leading orchestras.

The familiar themes of Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo & Juliet (1938) will undoubtedly make it into the suite – the ‘Dance of the Knights’ for example, so famously appropriated as the BBC’s Apprentice theme, has since become a pervasive presence in the contemporary classical music conscience. Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody (1934) is a set of twenty-four variations on Paganini’s twenty-fourth of his Caprices for solo violin.

The highlight of the evening for me is set to be Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. Rarely has music been as much a matter of life and death as in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Dmitri Shostakovich, fearing for his life, wrote his fifth symphony in 1937 to evoke rapture in his audience as a means of restoring himself to favour with the regime. In the years preceding this pivotal work in his life, Shostakovich had married, divorced and remarried his wife Nina Varzar, published his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and fallen from ‘official favour’. This came as a result of several aggressive articles published in Pravda, the state’s official newspaper, denouncing his work, most infamously in a particular article: ‘Muddle Instead of Music’, which labelled his recent opera as ‘coarse, primitive and vulgar’. His fifth symphony then, is a desperate and abject plea to be seen as a zealous proponent of the system that was closing its jaws on him. The rejoicing that comes at the close of the piece is entirely an act. Many years later, Shostakovich commented that “the rejoicing is forced, created under threat. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing”’. The result for contemporary audiences is a haunting artefact of totalitarianism, at once moving and disturbing.

Victor Aviat returns to conduct the orchestra. There are still tickets available for the performance, ranging in price from £16 to £40. The concert begins at 7:30pm tonight in the University Great Hall.

– by Thomas Gordon-Colebrooke

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