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Russian Tribute

Picture: Sasha Rozhdestvensky

Sydney Symphony; 2009 Season, Great Classics. RUSSIAN TRIBUTE. At the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House.

Music is not my field of expertise, however it is part of my theatre going diary. Hence…

This program called RUSSIAN TRIBUTE has the Violin Concerto No 1 in A minor, Op.99 by Dmitri Shostakovich (my favourite composer {at this time}) followed by Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky, orchestrated by Vladimir Ashkenazy. The violin soloist is Russian: Sasha Rozhdestvensky and the conductor is Russian: Vladimir Ashkenazy. Russians playing and interpreting Russian. Blissful expectations. And so it was.

I bought my ticket on the day and whilst in the waiting queue, a tourist, whose friend had taken ill, asked if I would like to buy a ticket. It was in the choir stalls (In which I had hoped to sit) and so bought it from her and avoided the Opera House “tax” to attend performances in their theatres. I was pleased to have circumvented that imposition to my finances.

I very much like to sit behind the orchestra to watch the Conductor at work. The music is also very immediate, right in front of you and extremely present even if the sound reception is back to front, in that the percussion is right THERE(!!!) with the strings behind and facing the wrong way. The percussion is very exciting in Shostakovitch, usually, and the Pictures at an Exhibition is very “noisy”. I had never heard the Violin Concerto before. The opening movement is a meditative and sombre exploration, a Nocturne that allowed me to fully absorb an introduction to the violinist’s interplay with the orchestra. The following movement the Scherzo, is one of those thrilling pell-mell explosions of cacophony of orchestral sounds that is a hallmark of most of my experiences of the Shostakovitch oeuvre. “Malignant, demonic, prickly” is a description given to it.

(To digress: in the interval speaking to some friends, who knew of this blog, in reply to a question, I confessed my knowledge of music was simply built from listening and reading and talking with more learned people about it, and then was asked what I would write and I replied about the “theatre” of it, of the experience. Well, with all due respect to an unfortunate patron in the Concert Hall, I had a very Hitchcockian episode during this movement. Intent on the thrill of the sounds with the xylophone and drums etc clinking and banging with the others in the band, and absorbed in the passions of Ashkenazy guiding the orchestra through the piece, I was distracted by two white coated ushers in a direct visual collision with my focus, in the front section of the upper part of the seats, the front circle, moving, in what appeared to be slow motion to the centre of the seating to assist an incapacitated concertgoer. As the ushers passed the seats, audience members were required to stand and then on their passing, sit again. rising and sitting. The ill patron often having to rest, holding the other patrons in an arrested state of “a semi recumbent posture”, once able, moved on again. It took quite some time. But the vivid impassioned actions and noise of the orchestra and conductor were in such contrast to the slow enactment of “rescue” in the circle seats that it was like watching one of those great staged moments in Hitchcock. THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH or TORN CURTAIN!!! – ahh the drama, the theatre of concert going!!!)

Back to the Concerto…The third movement, the Passacaglia, “is unapologetically baleful.” It winds into a cadenza for the soloist that is truly bravura to hear and to watch. Sasha Rozhdestvensky was great. Without pause, the orchestra crashed into the final movement the Burlesque. Apparently begun in composition in 1947, after an intimidating decree on artistic demands of the Party, Shostakovitch withheld the appearance of the score until 1955 when Stalin was safely embalmed. “It was initially given the opus number 77 but when published appeared as Op. 99.” In the program notes: “It would be fair to say that it’s Russian-born musicians who are best-placed to understand and interpret this music, to get under its skin. These are musicians such as Ashkenazy, who were there when this music was premiered and who directly experienced the world of “impossible circumstances it mirrors.” One of the keys to theatrical authenticity for any artist, and one I believe to be essential, is “personalisation”. The personal ownership through “life” identification through either first or second hand experiences. The apparent “knowledge”, at so many levels of entry, that Ashkenazy brings to this music is a handsome insight and reveals a depth to the sounds and collective sweep of the score that I, personally, find breathtaking.

Vladimir Ashkenazy began is career internationally as a renowned piano player. Pictures at an Exhibition was originally composed by Mussorgsky as a piano work. Ashkenazy knew this work intimately from that place of introduction and learning. The most well known orchestral adaptation of this piano score is by Ravel. The colours of the scoring are, apparently, very “French”. “…and so he (Ashkenazy) writes, ‘I developed my own personal vision of how the piece should sound when transported from the piano to the larger canvas of the symphony orchestra…… I have been guided by the deeper undercurrents of this predominately dark-coloured piece. In other words. I have tried to work from within the music rather from without …’.” The direction is marked from the first notes of Ashkenazy’s orchestrations: The Ravel begins the first Promenade with one trumpet, Ashkenazy uses three trumpets!!! As the very familiar piece unfurls, one “giggles” with the scoring and playing of The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks and overwhelmed and moved to tears with the feeling and majesty of The Great Gate of Kiev. It was a very wonderful hearing of a familiar piece of music.

What also was wonderful was to sit in the choir stalls facing Ashkenazy and capture all of the passion, control, intelligence and generosity of a great artist expressed by all the endearing idiosyncrasies of a performer lost in the joy of creating. The left hand tucked under his armpit, the pointed finger resting on his chin, the tweaking of his left ear, the gentle pointing and turning of the score pages in front of him.

After a very long applause, outside in the beauty of the Utzon building, surrounded by the Sydney harbour and the flushed audience I overheard a fellow journeyman say to her friend “What a treat!” Indeed. WHAT A TREAT. Thank you. Ashkenazy, Rozhdestvensky,and the Sydney Symphony, and of course the composers.

N.B. All quotations are from the published notes in the concert’s program.