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Sydney Symphony Orchestra – Dancing with the Devil

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra presents, DANCING WITH THE DEVIL, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody, in the Concert Hall, at the Sydney Opera House, 12 August – 14 & 15 August, 2015.

This concert given by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO), conducted by James Gaffigan, had the title: DANCING WITH THE DEVIL.

The first offer was the Ballet music from Act III of Verdi’s MACBETH (c.1864). The witches of the opera conjure the imagery of the Devil and the sound composed for the French version of the opera was for the dance around the cauldron of spells. Almost twenty years after the original premiere of the work, Verdi had taken the view that after the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, that the witches were the next most important protagonists, and wrote a ballet for them, for the Paris debut. That seemed the only connection to the other two offers of this concert, and like my reception to the Opera Australia’s production of DON CARLOS, I felt the experience of the music as dated and fairly unexciting.

The other two works, the first, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s RHAPSODY ON A THEME OF PAGANINI
(1934), for piano and orchestra, and the other: Dimitri Shostakovich’s SYMPHONY No.5 (1937), belong to another century and another nationality: Russian. Whilst listening to these two works I observed that the contrast of mood and compositional sources between these two men could not have been more contextually diverse. I pondered, whilst hearing the ‘dreamy’ Romanticisms of the Rachmaninoff work, that that composer had written it in the relative safety of the USA, after leaving Russia, in 1917, the year of the revolution, and despite the contextual discomforts of the collapse of the economy – the Great Depression – and the ominous signs of the German politics of 1934, wrote with such airy pleasure and a kind of optimism. On the other hand, Shostakovitch had stayed in Russia after the revolution, and was living through the economic disasters and artistic purges of Stalin, in what History has dubbed: The Great Terror. After having put aside his Fourth Symphony for fear of a negative response from his “Masters” and possible disgrace and punishment (Shostakovitch took to sleeping in the hallway of his apartment so as not to disturb his family when the NVKD [the predecessor of the KGB] arrived to arrest him), he wrote – only three years after the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody – the Fifth Symphony, a work which reflected, at least externally, some say, the ideals of the Socialist Realism dictates of the Stalinist regime – the Symphony’s heroic but dark sounds moved the audience, at its premiere, to tears and a 40 minutes ovation.

The Rhapsody by Rachmaninoff (the Rach-Pag) is a set of 24 variations on a theme by 19th-century violin virtuoso Paganini, for piano. Kirill Gerstein, a Russian born American pianist, was the soloist for this concert. Philip Sametz, in the program notes, tells us:

The work has wit, charm shapeliness, a clear sense of colour, strong rhythmic impetus and a dashing, suitably fiendish solo part that translates Paganini’s legendary virtuosity into a completely different musical context.

The ‘legendary’ virtuosity of Paganini had been surmised to have come from a ‘pact with the devil’ – a suspicion of his audience in the nineteenth century. Mr Gerstein’s playing had the same keen virtuosity, intense, delicate, loud and soft – his ‘pact with the devil’ re-enforced for us, his appreciative audience, by a left handed solo work as encore – startlingly rich in sound and true feeling. The famous melody of the 18th Variation in the Rhapsody had hit home, transporting one to a zone of inclination to a lush, luxurious dream of fulfilled romance.

I am a lover of Shostakovitch’s work. I need to confess. THE FIFTH SYMPHONY, a four movement work, captures my imagination and sense of reflection on a country’s history with deep feeling – a passionate, thrilled sadness – the contemporary Putin reign is, too, simply recalled when hearing this work (and other). The controversy as to the intention of the composer, whether the work is ‘an artist’s response to just criticism’, that fitted the requirements of the Government – “a piece of mandatory optimism and Soviet propaganda”, or, the late 20th century view “that Shostakovitch was a secret dissident, encoding anti-soviet ‘messages’ in his music, including the Fifth Symphony“, makes no real difference to the visceral response I have to the dynamics of the scoring of the orchestral sounds. Gordon Kerry in his notes in the SSO program – citing Alex Ross:

The notes, in any case, remain the same. The symphony still ends fortissimo, in D major, and it still brings audiences to their feet.

Sitting behind the orchestra, just behind the percussion, watching Maestro Gaffigan, I was captured completely by the visceral ‘noises’ of the orchestra with a kind of excitement, pulsed through with a thorough kind of fear, of the era/life it was written in and the one I live in. Shostakovitch and his DANCE WITH THE DEVIL, Stalin, still goes on, under another name.

This was a terrific concert. I was very happy to have heard it, indeed, despite premonitions of the future. Art a mirror to my world views. Yikes!