Classics in Concert

Spring For Music: National Symphony Orchestra At Carnegie HallWQXR radio

  • SHCHEDRIN: Slava, Slava
  • SCHNITTKE: Viola Concerto
  • SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 5
  • National Symphony Orchestra
  • Christoph Eschenbach, music director
  • David Aaron Carpenter, viola

When the National Symphony Orchestra closes out the third edition of the Spring for Music festival on Saturday night, it marks the return of an ensemble that is an all-too-rare guest in New York's concert halls; they last appeared at Carnegie Hall in 2006. But the orchestra will be making up for lost time, it seems, with an all-Russian program that gives a healthy nod to its past, paying tribute to former music director Mstislav Rostropovich.

Rostropovich, who died in 2007, was music director of the NSO from 1977 to 1994, and his image was inextricably tied to the ensemble for many years. In an interview with WQXR's Naomi Lewin, current NSO music director Christoph Eschenbach called Rostropovich "a great idol of mine since my youth," and explained how each of the three pieces on this Spring for Music captures an aspect of Rostropovich's reputation as an outspoken political exile as well as a conductor and cellist.

The program begins with Rodion Shchedrin's Slava, Slava, a brief and bright salute written in 1997 for Rostropovich's 70th birthday. Eschenbach called Shchedrin "an uncompromising person and composer and human being," adding, "Through all the difficult times in theSoviet Union, he never followed the rules of the government. He just follows the rules of what he has to say as a composer."

The program continues with the 1985 Viola Concerto by Alfred Schnittke, a composer who also had his battles with the Soviet regime and who wrote works of angular expressivity. This performance features the young Long Island-born violist David Aaron Carpenter, who has previously recorded the work with Eschenbach and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Eschenbach described the 40-minute concerto as a work of sadness and dark premonitions. "It's about the state in which Russia was and also sad about having to leave," he said. "[Schnittke] explored all the possibilities of viola in this piece."

Dmitri Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony concludes the program, a work that Rostropovich conducted throughout his career as a close friend of the composer. Rostropovich was adamant that the work's rousing finale was deliberately dumb, a coded response to the Soviet government's strong-arm tactics: "The shrill repetition of the A at the end of the symphony is to me like a spear-point jabbing in the wounds of a person on the rack," he said in the liner notes to a 1983 recording with the NSO. "Any person who thinks the finale is glorification is an idiot — yes, it is a triumph of idiots."

Eschenbach will conduct the Rostropovich version of the symphony's end, which concludes in a slow and subdued fashion. "It's a very desperate ending," said Eschenbach.

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