Classics in Concert

Spring For Music: The Houston Symphony's Subversive, Sardonic ShostakovichWQXR radio

  • SHOSTAKOVICH Anti-Formalist Rayok
  • SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 11 in G Minor, Op. 103, "The Year 1905"
  • Encore: LIADOV Baba Yaga

When orchestras are selected for the Spring for Music festival at Carnegie Hall, the criteria are not based on international fame, but on programming excellence and innovation. In last year's edition, the first, a really superb Carnegie debut by the Oregon Symphony catapulted the orchestra literally overnight into the critical stratosphere.

When the Houston Symphony Orchestra and conductor Hans Graf chose an all-Shostakovich program for this year's festival, they did so in light of the deep historical connection this orchestra has with Shostakovich's music — and his Symphony No. 11, subtitled "The Year 1905," in particular. This work's American premiere was with this orchestra, then under the baton of Leopold Stokowski.

The piece, which premiered in Moscow in 1957, was meant to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution by remembering those who rose up against the Tsar in 1905. On the surface, the Eleventh Symphony was a fitting work from a fully "Sovietized" composer, what with its programmatic motions (and perhaps even cliches) and references to revolutionary songs — evidence of Shostakovich's full acquiescence to the regime. But some listeners at the time heard a more subtle message in this music, perhaps a yearning for a return to the true, unjaded revolutionary spirit of Russia's pre-Soviet era. (There was a contemporary context for this message as well. Shostakovich wrote this symphony in the midst of the 1956 Hungarian uprising; it may be that he heard echoes of 1905 in contemporary Budapest.)

It's not clear when exactly Shostakovich wrote the rarely heard, seriously sardonic and entirely satirical cantata The Anti-Formalist Rayok (here performed with bass soloist Mikhail Svetlov) — but it's certain that it was a dangerous undertaking. Intriguingly, Graf calls Rayok "not a work of art purely — it is the gut reaction of a wounded composer" who had been done wrong by Stalin and the rest of the Soviet machine.

Inasmuch as Shostakovich often slyly hid political commentaries in instrumental works, this cantata is instead candidly subversive in its ridicule of the Soviet "anti-formalism" campaign against many of the country's most prominent artists, including Shostakovich himself. During Shostakovich's own lifetime, Rayok was heard only by his family and very close friends. Its first public performance was in 1989, 14 years after his death, and it is still very rarely performed.

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