On April 22 the Lubbock Symphony Orchestra will perform Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 1. The soloist will be Cliburn winner Kenny Broberg. He will be joined by trumpeter Will Strieder. The second half of the evening’s program will present Rodion Shchedrin’s adaptation of Bizet’s Carmen For String Orchestra and Percussion. Tickets can be purchased at the site linked above.
The program notes I wrote for the concert are below. I have added a few links to them to illustrate some of the music mentioned in them.
Shostakovich Piano Concerto #1
The career of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) can be divided into two halves – before and after Stalin. The Piano Concerto #1 belongs to the first half. This was the time when he was the boy wonder who produced music of boundless energy, when his world seemed limitless, and his creativity was unfettered.
Admitted to the Petrograd Conservatory when he was 13, Shostakovich was trained to be both a composer and a virtuoso pianist. When he was 19 his First Symphony, written as a graduation piece, was premiered by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra to great acclaim. He was a force in Russian music from that point until the end of his life.
He hoped to be a pianist composer like Rachmaninov and Prokoviev. He was selected to be one of the Soviet contestants in the inaugural Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1927. He advanced to the finals, but did not win a medal. This disappointing result caused him, to doubt his future as a performer.
Focusing on composition he stopped concertizing after 1930, except for performing his own works. He began his First Piano Concerto in March of 1933. He had already finished his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, though it had yet to be performed. It was the opera that triggered a near lethal reaction from Stalin after he saw it in 1936, two years after its successful premiere.
The concerto started out as one for trumpet, but gradually morphed into a piano concerto with a prominent, but secondary part for trumpet. First performed in October 1933 with the composer as soloist, it was an immediate hit and revitalized Shostakovich’s performing career. He was repeatedly invited to perform it across Russia. It rapidly became part of the standard piano concerto repertory and has remained such to this day.
The concerto is a bundle of jokes, parodies, quotations, and dynamism. Shostakovich was one of music’s great quoters. In this work it’s hard to keep up with all the quotations. But they are so seamlessly integrated into the work that even if you miss them the piece still works. Some are so disguised that they’re only revealed by repeated listening.
The concerto is a wild parody on the great romantic concertos of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. Shostakovich’s models are the leading modernists of a century ago – Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Poulenc, Hindemith, and Ravel. The quotations derive from his love of Mahler – also addicted to musical quotations.
The musical references include Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata, the composer’s incidental music for Hamlet, the Austrian folk song ‘O du lieber Augustin’, Haydn’s Piano Sonata in D, the folk tune ‘Poor Mary’, a wild sendup of Beethoven’s Rage Over a Lost Penny which includes the beginning of the famous Al Jolson song ‘California Here I Come’. There are more. That Shostakovich could make a coherent whole out of this thematic hodgepodge is a mark of his genius.
The concerto is in four movements rather than the usual three, though the third is very short and serves as an introduction to the finale. The second movement, marked lento, abandons zaniness for its duration. In ABA form, it is a dreamy waltz. The use of the trumpet when the initial theme returns is especially effective. It is an island of restrained beauty before the wackiness of the final movement takes over. Shortly after the concerto’s premiere, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was staged to great acclaim. For two years it was widely performed throughout the Soviet Union, then in 1936 Stalin attended a performance and was offended by everything in the opera. Two days later ‘Muddle Instead of Music’ was published in Pravda. Shostakovich’s life changed forever. Thereafter he kept a packed suitcase by his door to have handy when he was arrested. Though frequently denounced he never was jailed. Henceforth, he was still a great composer, but of a different temperament.
Rodion Shchedrin (b 1932) is a Russian composer and pianist with a large body of work in a variety of genres. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, he has divided his time between Munich and Moscow. His best known work is an unusual adaptation of Bizet’s opera Carmen. The genesis and performance of this adaptation is connected to Shostakovich both before and after its composition.
Shchedrin’s wife was the great ballerina Maya Plisetskaya (1925-2015), the prima ballerina assoluta of the Bolshoi Theater. In 1964 she asked Shostakovich to compose a ballet for her based on Carmen. He refused explaining that the opera was so good and so well known that no matter what he produced the public would be disappointed. He suggested that she approach the composer she was married to.
She went instead to Aram Khachaturian the composer of the ballets Gayane and Spartacus who also suggested that Shchedrin was the man for the job. Before Shchedrin began composing the ballet, Plisetskaya had worked with the Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso. He worked out a libretto and dance moves for the ballet.
Alonso went to Moscow to teach Plisetskaya the ballet. Shchedrin observed the process and realized that he needed more than a simple adaptation of Bizet’s music. He had to be more than an arranger.
He came up with the bold idea of using only a string orchestra and an enlarged percussion section. He rearranged the order of the music from its appearance in the opera, mixed melodies from different numbers, and included some music from Bizet’s incidental music to L’Arlésienne and his opera La Jolie Fille de Perthe.
The ballet ran into a lot of trouble with the Soviet Minister of Culture, but it finally was staged after Shostakovich intervened on its behalf. While the ballet is occasionally performed, Shchedrin’s score lives on in the concert hall where it has proved to be a big hit. It has also been recorded many times.
Arranged for strings, timpani, and four percussionists it consists of 13 sections that rearrange and expand on Bizet’s music. Themes are interwoven and combined. In the ninth part of the suite, the famous Toreador Song is layered with the fate motif that predicts the story’s grim conclusion. This effect adds new meaning to the great piece. The unexpected sudden hesitations are resolved when the section ends with a full out playing of the great tune. The fate motif also appears in the third section – “The changing of the guard.”
The twists and turns of the score add piquancy to the familiar music. Predictably, some critics were offended by Shchedrin’s reworking of a classic. But the audience, the ultimate critic, has decreed the work a unique addition to Bizet’s masterpiece confirming Shchedrin’s declaration that his work was “A meeting of the minds” between him and Bizet. Shchedrin had achieved the rarest of artistic feats – a masterpiece based on a masterpiece.
The four percussionists, who with timpanist and string orchestra perform the work, play the instruments below:
Player 1: marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, castanets, three cowbells, four bongos, tubular bells, snare drum, guiro
Player 2: vibraphone, marimba, snare drum, tambourine, two woodblocks, claves, triangle, guiro
Player 3: glockenspiel, crotales, maracas, whip, snare drum, cabasa, guiro, three temple blocks, bass drum, tam-tam, tenor drum, triangle
Player 4: cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, hi-hat, triangle, tambourine, five tom-toms
Excellent notes, Neil, and I look forward to attending this concert.
Shostakovich’s music strikes me, in the main, as a deranged carnival ride always on the verge of going off its hinges and spinning into space. It never does, though. (Or, at least it hasn’t yet.) The madcap always retreats just before plunging into the abyss. No other composer I know has this characteristic. It’s not for everybody, and sometimes it’s not even for me, but Shostakovich’s music always gets top marks for distinctiveness.
About Shchedrin, I know next to nothing. I do wonder, however, if he’s a descendant of the famed Russian satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin. Creative genius seems to have some genetic basis.