Last night, I heard the New World Symphony's Discovery Concert at Carnegie, which focused on Shostakovich's 5th symphony. The program, subtitled, "On the Trail of the Truth", started with an hour-long discussion of the score by New World founder (and San Francisco Symphony director) Michael Tilson Thomas, who is perhaps the most gifted conductor-speaker since Leonard Bernstein (who, after all, was his mentor).
Thomas interspersed his clear, incisive observations with interesting personal anecdotes, such as the time he met Shostakovich as a student at USC Prep back in 1959. Shostakovich traveled there with a group of Soviet composers, and during a recital of their music, he sat alone, mumbling to himself. "Clearly, he was withdrawn and somewhat disturbed," Thomas said. "Which isn't hard to imagine, knowing what we know now about the difficult life he lived," referring to his near-constant persecution under Stalin, often cited as a driving force behind the composition of the 5th symphony.
Thomas also provided live musical examples to illuminate the compositional choices Shostakovich made, such as playing the opening bars of Beethoven's 9th to show how Shostakovich replicates the same "Ta Da!" theme in his own opening. Thomas even went so far as to have the orchestra play part of the final theme with a B natural instead of a B flat, changing the key from minor to major and thereby losing all its power and tension. I immediately thought of how Bernstein would occasionally play around with scores during his Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, conducted from this same stage back in the 1950's and 60's.
The video images - mostly archive footage and red-hued portraits of the composer - were fine to look at, but not particularly informative, especially next to Maestro Thomas' accessible and insightful observations.
After an intermission, the orchestra returned with a full performance of the symphony, which would have been brilliant by any standard, but was truly remarkable given that the players are all non-professionals in their mid-to-early 20's. (See my post from a couple of weeks ago if you'd like to learn more about New World.) Appropriately, the entire hall rose to their feet at the end in recognition of their - and Maestro Thomas' - achievement.
The concert was a project of Carnegie's Weill Music Institute, which, in addition to this series of Discovery Concerts, offers family concerts, school programs, and free neighborhood concerts in all five boroughs. There are also fun features on the website, including an exploration of Bartok's String Quartets with the Emerson String Quartet. Definitely worth a look if you have some time.