•  The Houston Symphony and conductor Hans Graf presented an all-Shostakovich evening for their evening at the Spring for Music festival at Carnegie Hal on May 7, 2012. They played two rarely heard works in powerful performances: the bitingly satirical Anti-Formalist Rayok, with soloist Mikhail Svetlov (pictured), as well as the gargantuan Symphony No. 11.
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    The Houston Symphony and conductor Hans Graf presented an all-Shostakovich evening for their evening at the Spring for Music festival at Carnegie Hal on May 7, 2012. They played two rarely heard works in powerful performances: the bitingly satirical Anti-Formalist Rayok, with soloist Mikhail Svetlov (pictured), as well as the gargantuan Symphony No. 11.

    Torsten Kjellstrand/Torsten Kjellstrand for NPR
  • Russian bass Mikhail Svetlov charmed the audience in the brash Rayok, which pokes overt fun at the Soviet "anti-formalism" campaigns that plagued many of the country's most prominent artists, including Shostakovich himself.
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    Russian bass Mikhail Svetlov charmed the audience in the brash Rayok, which pokes overt fun at the Soviet "anti-formalism" campaigns that plagued many of the country's most prominent artists, including Shostakovich himself.
    Torsten Kjellstrand/Torsten Kjellstrand for NPR
  • Throughout the piece, Svetlov was a quick-change artist who darted in and out of various costumes to play different roles.
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    Throughout the piece, Svetlov was a quick-change artist who darted in and out of various costumes to play different roles.
    Torsten Kjellstrand/Torsten Kjellstrand for NPR
  • Musicians and even staff members of the Houston Symphony were called upon to participate in this performance of Shostakovich's sardonic and highly political Rayok.
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    Musicians and even staff members of the Houston Symphony were called upon to participate in this performance of Shostakovich's sardonic and highly political Rayok.
    Torsten Kjellstrand/Torsten Kjellstrand for NPR
  • With its witheringly contemptuous text, The Anti-Formalist Rayok was not performed publicly until 1989, some fourteen years after Shostakovich's death. It is still performed only very rarely.
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    With its witheringly contemptuous text, The Anti-Formalist Rayok was not performed publicly until 1989, some fourteen years after Shostakovich's death. It is still performed only very rarely.
    Torsten Kjellstrand/Torsten Kjellstrand for NPR
  • Fans who traveled from Houston waved purple bandannas to proclaim their hometown love before this first concert during the Spring for Music festival, in which orchestras from around the country are invited to perform based on the strength of their programming.
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    Fans who traveled from Houston waved purple bandannas to proclaim their hometown love before this first concert during the Spring for Music festival, in which orchestras from around the country are invited to perform based on the strength of their programming.
    Torsten Kjellstrand/Torsten Kjellstrand for NPR
  • The subtitle of Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony, "The Year 1905" summons the memory of an anti-tsarist uprising in Russia — but the composer wrote this piece in the midst of the anti-Soviet movement that swept Hungary in 1956.
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    The subtitle of Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony, "The Year 1905" summons the memory of an anti-tsarist uprising in Russia — but the composer wrote this piece in the midst of the anti-Soviet movement that swept Hungary in 1956.
    Torsten Kjellstrand/Torsten Kjellstrand for NPR
  • This is conductor Hans Graf's last season as music director of the Houston Symphony; beginning in the 2013-14 year, he will be the orchestra's Conductor Laureate.
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    This is conductor Hans Graf's last season as music director of the Houston Symphony; beginning in the 2013-14 year, he will be the orchestra's Conductor Laureate.
    Torsten Kjellstrand/Torsten Kjellstrand for NPR
  • Chimes ring chillingly in the fourth and final movement of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11.
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    Chimes ring chillingly in the fourth and final movement of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11.
    Torsten Kjellstrand/Torsten Kjellstrand for NPR

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Classics in Concert

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

PROGRAM
  • 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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