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.

[+] read more[-] less

More From Classical

Ludovico Einaudi, performing live for KCRW. Larry Hirshowitz/KCRW hide caption

toggle caption Larry Hirshowitz/KCRW

Favorite Sessions

Ludovico Einaudi, 'Petricor' (Live)


Watch the pianist and composer, joined by a full band, in a stunning live performance for KCRW.

Opera singer Joyce DiDonato created this video to go with her new album, In War and Peace: Harmony through Music. Warner Classics hide caption

toggle caption Warner Classics


In Chaotic Times, A Singer's Plea For Freedom

Opera star Joyce DiDonato's new video depicts a woman trapped in conflict.

Genard Ptah Blair dances to Carolina Eyck's music in a magical video directed by Sonia Malfa. Sonia Malfa hide caption

toggle caption Sonia Malfa

All Songs TV

Get Lost In Carolina Eyck's Ethereal Garden

A magical landscape, a theremin and an elastic dancer offer an innocent escape from a hectic world.

A still from Maya Beiser's "Air" video. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the artist

All Songs TV

First Watch: Maya Beiser, 'Air'

In a new video, the cellist reflects on her childhood and the timelessness of J.S. Bach's music.

Yuja Wang played a demanding program at Carnegie Hall, topped by four encores. Ebru Yildiz/for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Ebru Yildiz/for NPR

Carnegie Hall Live

Yuja Wang Plays Carnegie Hall

WQXR radio

Hear one of today's most charismatic pianists tackle the toughest sonata Beethoven could muster.

Yuja Wang Plays Carnegie Hall

Audio is no longer available

Conductor Mariss Jansons led the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall Wednesday in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7, "Leningrad." AJ Wilhelm for NPR hide caption

toggle caption AJ Wilhelm for NPR

Carnegie Hall Live

The 'Leningrad' Symphony At Carnegie Hall

WQXR radio

Mariss Jansons leads the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Shostakovich's wartime epic.

The 'Leningrad' Symphony At Carnegie Hall

  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Michael Mizrahi channels the harpsichord in new music by Troy Herion. Eno Swinnen/Courtesy of the Artist hide caption

toggle caption Eno Swinnen/Courtesy of the Artist

All Songs TV

First Watch: Michael Mizrahi, 'Harpsichords'

Pianist Michael Mizrahi channels old school harpsichord music in a new piece by Troy Herion.

Music director Iván Fischer leading an Budapest Festival Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall in New York Thursday. A.J. Wilhelm for NPR hide caption

toggle caption A.J. Wilhelm for NPR

Carnegie Hall Live

Budapest Festival Orchestra Plays Carnegie Hall

Iván Fischer conducts a Liszt piano concerto with soloist Marc-André Hamelin.

Budapest Festival Orchestra Plays Carnegie Hall

  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Lawrence Brownlee performs with pianist Jason Moran in the active crypt below the historic Church of the Intercession in Harlem. NPR hide caption

toggle caption NPR

Field Recordings

Singing For Life In A Crypt In Harlem

Opera singer Lawrence Brownlee joins jazz pianist Jason Moran in an old spiritual.

Back To Top