Crossing Brooklyn Ferry: Saturday
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Spring for Music: Houston Symphony

by Michael Cirigliano II

Spring for Music, Houston Symphony, Carnegie Hall, Feast of Music

Carnegie Hall opened their second-annual Spring for Music Festival on Monday night with the Houston Symphony under the baton of Music Director Hans Graf. Choosing an all-Shostakovich program for a festival known for innovative programming may not have seemed like a suitable fit, but Graf and his ensemble presented two of the composer’s lesser-known works, the satirical mini-cantata Anti-Formalist Rayok and the Eleventh Symphony (“The Year 1905”), which received its U.S. premiere by the Houston Symphony in 1958.

Spring for Music places emphasis on each orchestra’s role in their hometown, so the evening began with opening remarks by Houston Mayor Annise Parker. Parker served as an articulate ambassador for her city’s organization, speaking fluently about the civic pride she feels for the arts in Houston, and even providing some opening remarks regarding the program.

Anti-Formalist Rayok, a short work for baritone, choir and chamber orchestra, served as a cathartic release for Shostakovich after living for decades under the thumb of the Stalin regime. As the satirical elements and dark humor found within the piece could have landed Shostakovich in a labor camp, it was kept hidden until years after the composer’s death in 1975.

Meant to lampoon the Congress of Soviet Composers that denounced Shostakovich as a formalist composer not of the people, the cantata presents four speakers at an imaginary meeting, each one discussing the fate of music in Soviet society. Because of its satirical quality, the music is light and farcical—Shostakovich’s attempt at showing just how soulless music would sound if forced to follow Stalin’s every whim. The performance was given a hilarious presentation by baritone Mikhail Svetlov, who deftly changed hats and glasses when moving between the four characters of the work.

Regarded as a “silent film score without the film,” Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony is one of his most programmatic works, recounting the failed Russian revolution of 1905, which included the massacre of protesting workers outside of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The first movement barely rises above a whisper, with a blanket of string harmonics throughout and segments of various muted horn and trumpet fanfares portraying the sleeping palace guards. Once the protesters march to the Palace in the second movement, typical martial sounds abound, with heavy strings, screeching woodwinds, and a battery of percussion representing the military throngs.

Unfortunately for the Houston players, they only chose to focus on the loud and brash side of the work, hardly moving into the emotional and intimate waters that any Shostakovich work hinges upon. Even in the third movement’s emotional requiem-like chorales, there were many moments of overplaying by the brittle string section and forceful brass. The balances were often so off-kilter that the large woodwind section (with three players on each instrument) were barely audible. Conversely, in the louder, war-like material, percussion often obliterated their colleagues, with snare drums and gongs drowning out many of the moving lines found elsewhere in the score. For an orchestra that was praised for playing Carnegie Hall sixteen times, one would think they would know the hall better.   

Graf took a backseat throughout much of the work, only using simple baton gestures that never managed to fix such balance problems. Making matters worse, the tempos chosen in the second and fourth movements were often pedantic to begin with and slowly crawled on from there. With a conductor like Gergiev or Rostropovich, Shostakovich’s music is allowed to move forward, making for tense and chilling moments; however, with Graf, such moments of military terror became unnecessarily brash and slow-moving affairs.