Philharmonic Turns to Shostakovich


The new year for the Los Angeles Philharmonic began last week with its continuing focus on Schoenberg, but then the orchestra turned an abrupt corner. This week and next, the attention is on Shostakovich. Esa-Pekka Salonen will conduct a cycle of the 15 Shostakovich symphonies, three a season, concluding in 2006, the centennial of the Russian composer’s birth. It began Wednesday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with Shostakovich’s First Symphony. Next week brings the Second and Third.

In addition, the Philharmonic has initiated a parallel cycle of Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets. The first three were played by different quartets of Philharmonic string players Monday night at the Skirball Cultural Center as part of the orchestra’s chamber music series, and one quartet is included in the “Upbeat Live” segments before each orchestral concert.

Already, controversy has erupted. In a recent polemic in the New Republic, Richard Taruskin, Russian-music scholar at UC Berkeley, discounted UCLA musicologist Susan McClary’s pronouncement made at a Philharmonic symposium last fall that Schoenberg was “the most consequential musician of the 20th century.”


Taruskin contends that Shostakovich deserves that distinction because his music had a social purpose and it meant more than any other art in Soviet society. On the other hand, it could be argued that Schoenberg’s social role, in Europe and Los Angeles, has been underappreciated. And there is always the issue of whether Shostakovich’s music, for all its wry irony and effective expression of political repression, is of a consistently high standard.

That standard is what Salonen seems most eager to explore. Like many musicians over 40, he is the product of a Modernist sensibility that once dismissed Shostakovich outright. In his youth, he agreed with Boulez, who called the symphonies warmed-over Mahler. But at a press conference last year, Salonen said that he has decided now to make up his own mind.

What Salonen brings is a fresh approach. The First Symphony is a graduation exercise that thrust the 19-year-old Leningrad music student suddenly into the limelight. It was so popular that it made it all the way to Los Angeles; the Philharmonic played it just four years after its 1926 premiere.

Lately, it has achieved masterpiece status. Four recordings of the symphony have been released over the last three months--in the commemorative CD sets put out by the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra and Boston Symphony, along with a commercial CD by Jesus Lopez-Cobos and the Cincinnati Symphony.

The masterpiece syndrome tends to elevate the symphony into a major statement. On Wednesday, however, Salonen reminded us that this is the work of impish rebellion, of a brilliant student struggling to conform to conservatory-required convention while thumbing his nose at it. The slow movement reacts to the death of a friend, but the symphony also conveys the sense of liberation of a composer about to make his way in the world.

Salonen kept the symphony clear and light, forcing little, alert to the sense of play in the music. Above all, he conducted it as a youthful exercise, full of spirit and humor. There was a bit of a letdown in the heavier third and fourth movements, but overall it was an inventive reading and had the advantage of Michele Zukovsky’s wonderfully quirky clarinet solos.

Shostakovich was surrounded by other Russians on Wednesday. Salonen prefaced each half of the program with “Night on Bald Mountain,” first the version by Rimsky-Korsakov, then Mussorgsky’s original.

Both were arresting, each in its own way. Rimsky’s orchestrations and arrangement are full of lush color. Mussorgsky’s own score is a riveting mess, a raw and frightening evocation of a witch’s Sabbath that reflects the composer’s own existential angst.

In an different spirit, the program concluded with Scriabin’s “Prometheus,” a tone poem of ever more ecstatic, orgasmic yearning, for piano and orchestra. Scriabin wanted colors with his music, and Salonen gave them to him, not only in a expertly controlled performance, but with an actual light show provided by laser artist Steve Shapiro of Laserium. It looked like an update of the old light shows that used to accompany psychedelic rock concerts at the Fillmore in the ‘60s, but then the Scriabin revival in the ‘60s was helped along by the psychedelic atmosphere of those times. Still, the soloist, Alexander Toradze, needed no visual help as he threw himself into this music with irresistible abandon.

The early Shostakovich quartets are almost as far removed from the early symphonies as are works like “Prometheus,” which Shostakovich happened to despise. The first quartet was written a decade after the First Symphony (it falls between the Fifth and Sixth), a light score meant to help scare away Stalin’s looming shadow. The second and third quartets are intense works from wartime and just after. The most impressive performance on Monday was of the Third Quartet, which was led by Akiko Tarumoto, an electrifying young member of the second violin section. This is another Shostakovich, a preview of what awaits us.


The Los Angeles Philharmonic program repeats today (Shostakovich and Scriabin, only) and Saturday at 8 p.m., Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. $12-$78. (323) 850-2000.