January 12, 2008

A Most Dramatic Program

Program Music by Bloch and Shostakovich


Ernest Bloch
"Schelomo" - Hebrew Rhapsody for Violoncello and Orchestra

Dmitri Shostakovich
Symphony No. 11 in g minor op. 103 "The Year 1905"


Eliahu Inbal - Conductor
Jing Zhao - Violoncello

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A Most Dramatic Program

Program Music by Bloch and Shostakovich

by Anicia Timberlake

Eliahu Inbal, soloist Jing Zhao and the Konzerthausorchester performed what was probably 2008's most dramatic program yet this past weekend. From Bloch's agonized Schelomo to Shostakovich's massive 11th Symphony, the evening was an aural incarnation of pathos. Both pieces are programmatic: they have an extra-musical story. Schelomo describes events in the life of the Hebrew king Solomon, and Shostakovich's 11th Symphony depicts the year 1905, in which peaceful demonstrators agitating for better working conditions in front of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg were massacred by the military. The ability of music to convey extra-musical ideas has been under heated debate for centuries, and I don't wish to enter into the fray. Rather, I mention this issue because it has a profound effect on how I hear the pieces: if I know that the music has an outside reference point, I can't help but think about the relation of the sounds to the program while listening.

Jing Zhao

Nevertheless, programmatic music is most effective when the music can function on its own as well as as a musical illustration. I find that Schelomo sounds too much like it is just accompanying a story, film music without a film. Devotees of John Williams will argue that many film scores can be enjoyed without pictures. This may be true, but in the case of Schelomo, I found myself looking around for a screen full of weeping widows. The piece's weaknesses notwithstanding, Ms. Zhao gave an impassioned, moving performance. She has a wonderfully rich and expressive sound, which was shown off to its best advantage by the very sensitively played orchestral accompaniment. The oboe and bassoon solos were impressive in their absolutely perfect unison. Orchestra, soloist and conductor all shared a vision of the piece, which led to some beautiful atmospheric moments.

Perhaps it would be unnecessary to remark that in contrast, my appreciation of Shostakovich's 11th Symphony was aided by the fact that I find this piece to be an example of the best kind of programmatic music. The interpretation rendered by Mr. Inbal and the Konzerthausorchester was chilling and subtle. The first movement, a long and menacing Adagio of drawn-out string chords punctuated by brass calls, created an impression of inhumanly large and empty spaces—maybe even the "palace square" in the movement's title. Mr. Inbal did an especially fine job of adjusting the strings' blend when a different color was called for. The second movement alternated between terrifying and heartbreaking, with beautiful unisons. The gem of the symphony, however, was the third movement. This movement opens with a long and tragic melody played by the violas, with the other strings playing a pizzicato accompaniment. The throaty viola sound, perfectly blended and with extremely fragile pianissimos, was a wrenching contrast to the grandiosity of the previous two movements. It was as if, in the midst of an eternal landscape, a human voice could finally be heard. The finale, which ends in a shocking explosion of bells, was all that a dramatic apotheosis should be.

This last of three concerts was performed before a moderately full but appreciative audience on Saturday. No one seemed to enjoy the concert more than the conductor himself. Mr. Inbal bounced around the podium, beaming when he was not frowning in concentration, and was much more involved than some conductors of his generation tend to be. It was a treat to see how positively thrilled he looked during the closing applause, when he made sure each section got their own curtain call, sometimes embracing the principals heartily. Mr. Inbal's satisfaction was thoroughly justified.