Spring For Music: The Houston Symphony's Subversive Shostakovich The Houston Symphony brings a biting all-Shostakovich program to Carnegie Hall for the Spring for Music festival — including the very rarely heard satirical cantata The Anti-Formalist Rayok.

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

Gurtman and Murtha Artist Management

Ruth Laredo On Piano Jazz

Hear "America's First Lady of the Piano" explore the boundaries between classical music and jazz with host Marian McPartland in this 2004 episode.

Ruth Laredo On Piano Jazz

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/562620476/562624249" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Dancers in "Stalactites," a video by Mark DeChiazza, based on Orpheus Unsung, a theater work composed by Steven Mackey, with Jason Treuting. Mark DeChiazza hide caption

toggle caption Mark DeChiazza

Orpheus Reborn With Dancers, Drums And Electric Guitar

A new video, featuring a score by Steven Mackey with Jason Treuting, retells the ancient tale of love, loss and the power of music.

Penguin Cafe performs a Tiny Desk Concert on May 2, 2017. (Claire Harbage/NPR) Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Claire Harbage/NPR

Penguin Cafe

Penguin Cafe folds in sounds from around the world and throughout music history — Africa, Kraftwerk, Brazil and Franz Schubert.

Composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir revised her piece Aura especially for The Los Angeles Percussion Quartet. David Holechek hide caption

toggle caption David Holechek

Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Volcanic Transmissions

As members of the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet bow their vibraphones, brush their gongs and message their bass drums, the composer's evocative music oozes from blackness.

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

toggle caption Larry Hirshowitz/KCRW

Ludovico Einaudi, 'Petricor' (Live)


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

Back To Top