Houston Symphony Kicks Off Carnegie’s “Spring for Music”

United StatesUnited States  Spring for Music, Concert I, “Two Faces of Shostakovich”: Mikhail Svetlov (bass), Houston Symphony, Hans Graf (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City, 7.5.2012 (BH)

Shostakovich: Anti-Formalist Rayok (c. 1957-1960)
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103 (“The Year 1905”) (1957)

For the second year in a row, Carnegie Hall has been offering Spring for Music, a six-concert series with orchestras chosen based on unusual, imaginative programs, and the opening concert, with Hans Graf and the Houston Symphony, was a fine example. Two works by Shostakovich—one virtually unknown and one that should be better known—kicked off the week.

Angered by a Soviet official who mispronounced “Rimsky-Korsakov,” Shostakovich wrote Anti-Formalist Rayok as a secret jab at those who had tried to stifle his creativity, but the piece was shelved and not performed until 1989, over 40 years after its creation. Originally written for piano with four bass soloists, this chamber music arrangement was written by Vladimir Milman, and Shostakovich approved the use of a single singer in all four parts. Here, the Houston musicians were joined by Mikhail Svetlov, whose resonant timbre was ideal for the roles as he cavorted around the stage, slyly lowering himself behind a lectern to change costumes. The music is very much in the composer’s satiric mode (think The Age of Gold)—sprightly and nose-thumbing—with a march and a can-can taking honors. If most listeners could be forgiven for not wanting to seek out a recording (Shostakovich completists excepted), the Houston crew should be heartily congratulated for unearthing and preparing such a rarity.

On the other hand, the 11th Symphony (written about the same time) is a masterpiece that deserves a much wider audience. And the Houston Symphony has potent bragging rights, having made the first recording with Leopold Stokowski in the late 1950s—still a benchmark for many listeners. In four uninterrupted sections, the Eleventh conjures up the nightmare that occurred in 1905, when thousands of protesting Russian civilians were killed at the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. The opening, “The Palace Square,” contains a bleak cloud of high strings, eerie and unnerving, and a motif that reappears throughout the hour. The grueling ride reaches its first climax in the second movement, “The Ninth of January,” which evokes the actual slaughter, notable for the brass and percussion outbursts. At the opening of the sad Adagio, the haunting song for the violas was beautifully, gently unfurled, and the dramatic upsurge in the final “Tocsin,” riddled with percussion, was stirring. If one might have wanted even more bite—more guts and sting here and there—the group still emerged triumphant.

One of the best effects comes at the very end: towering, sepulchral chimes at the back of the stage finally ring out amid fortissimo orchestra. (I hope the percussion section enjoyed a round of drinks afterward.) Acknowledging the audience roar of approval, Graf and the orchestra offered another bit of Russian culture, but one considerably more fanciful: Anatoly Liadov’s Baba Yaga, done with sparkling assurance.

Bruce Hodges