SUNDAY, APRIL 26, 2020 4:00PM
Margaret Beckley Upton Memorial Concert
Pre-concert conversation 3:00pm
Howard Performing Arts Center, Berrien Springs
Jose Salgado’s Breathtaking Science and Symphony KV 265 Film
Southwest Michigan Symphony Female Chorus
Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5
Nocturnes, a set of three symphonic movements Debussy created from material he had been working on since 1892, established the composer as a musical figure of undisputed importance when it was premiered in 1900/01. His critics on the conservative side of musical discourse continued to be affronted by the bold innovations in harmonic language, motivic development, and structural organization that characterized this and his previous orchestral work, the Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune, but it was no longer possible to deny the music’s power to enrapture an audience.
Each movement is a self-contained tone-poem evoking a specific image or set of images. The music was originally planned as Trois scènes de crepuscule (“Three Twilight Scenes”), a title that immediately calls to mind the impressionistic style of the Whistler paintings of the same name.
The work’s “program” was described thus by the composer:
“The title Nocturnes is to be interpreted here in a general and, more particularly, in a decorative sense. Therefore, it is not meant to designate the usual form of the Nocturne, but rather all the various impressions and the special effects of light that the word suggests. Nuages renders the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in gray tones lightly tinged with white. Fêtes gives us the vibrating, dancing rhythm of the atmosphere with sudden flashes of light. There is also the episode of the procession (a dazzling fantastic vision) which passes through the festive scene and becomes merged with it. But the background remains persistently the same: the festival with its blending of music and luminous dust participating in the cosmic rhythm. Sirènes depicts the sea and its countless rhythms and presently, amongst the waves silvered by the moonlight, is heard the mysterious song of the Sirens as they laugh and pass on.”
Amongst the many beauties of the scoring, the use of wordless 16 voice female chorus to evoke the voices of the Sirens in the final movement is a particular stroke of innovative genius.
Symphony No. 5, Shostakovich
By 1937 when Shostakovich composed his fifth symphony, he had already experienced the consequences of living in a state where the opinions of the political elite determined the success or failure of an artist’s career. Once lauded by the official press, he suddenly found himself the object of government-inspired vilification for his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The Fifth Symphony was his response, and indeed, for the Fifth Symphony’s first Moscow performance he allowed a subtitle: “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.” From these strangest and perhaps least promising of circumstances emerged one of the most admired and frequently performed musical artworks of the C20th.
The work begins with a moderato movement that, following its declamatory canonic opening subsides, builds and subsides once more. This is followed by a biting, satiric waltz-scherzo, with a trio featuring solo violin and small groups of instruments. The third movement is one of the saddest of the composer’s soulful adagios, searing in its absolute mastery of the slow form.
So far, he had written nothing appeasing. However, in the finale, with a kind of musical slight-of-hand by which the same gesture can be understood in multiple ways, the composer finally gave the authorities what they craved, a “heroic” coda. But it is a coda that can also be heard as coerced and insincere, a reading reinforced by its relentless, pounding reiteration of the pitch A. The ambiguity already inherent in the music has been subsequently exacerbated in this particular case by controversy over the final pace: eighth note = 188 (as the composer marked it) or double that (as it is sometimes performed). However, musical quotations from his setting of the Pushkin poem “Rebirth” make clear his that his intent was total repudiation of Stalinism.