Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 8, 2018

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony, Shostakovich 5

Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
May 4-6, 2018
by Michael J. Moran

For the eighth “Masterworks series” program of the HSO’s 74th season, Music Director Carolyn Kuan presented an all-Shostakovich concert. That might have sounded like a forbidding prospect to listeners who only know Shostakovich as, in the words of the program notes, “the man who composed some of the 20th century’s most profound musical statements.”

But leave it to Kuan’s canny instinct to lead off with a perfect example of his extensive lighter side: “Tahiti Trot,” a renamed 1928 arrangement of “Tea for Two,” from the Broadway musical “No, No, Nanette,” by Vincent Youmans, then popular in liberal pre-Stalinist Russia. This music was second nature to Shostakovich, who wrote many film scores, where he often dabbled in jazz. On a dare from conductor Nikolai Malko to orchestrate the piece within an hour, Shostakovich produced his glittering and often hilarious instrumentation in 45 minutes. The HSO and Kuan made quick and delightful work of it.

Jay Campbell
The first half continued with a vigorous and deeply felt account of Shostakovich’s first cello concerto, written in the re-liberalizing post-Stalinist Russia of 1959 for the legendary Mstislav Rostropovich and here featuring in his HSO debut rising 28-year-old American cellist Jay Campbell. His small boyish frame belied the power and virtuosity of his playing, which ranged from skittering in the opening “Allegretto” to dark and intense in the haunting “Moderato,” daring and athletic in the demanding “Cadenza,” and exultant in the playful finale. Kuan and the ensemble gave him nimble and transparent backing.

The concert concluded after intermission with a brilliant performance of the fifth and most familiar of Shostakovich’s fifteen symphonies, written in 1937 as “a Soviet composer’s reply to just criticism” after “Pravda” condemned his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtzensk” the year before as “muddle instead of music.” The symphony’s solemn and brooding first movement, cheekily sardonic “Allegretto,” luminous “Largo,” and ironically joyful finale stirringly evoke the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.

The contrast among these three works gave the Hartford audience a rare opportunity to appreciate the full range of Shostakovich’s fraught but fruitful life and varied musical career.