So what is the Symphony No. 11? Shostakovich’s most Russian/ Mussorgskian work? A piece of cinematic agit-prop? A commentary on the crushed Hungarian uprising? A deeply reflective “Requiem for a Generation,” as Shostakovich claimed, according to [Solomon] Volkov’s controversial memoir? The work of a washed-up genius who, after 20 years of suppression, has succumbed to the political juggernaut? A beautifully organized work that speaks tragically to the inevitable recurrence of despotism?
–NEC website, April 2014
I have to be honest with you: After living with this symphony for the last two months, I still can’t make up my mind. Parts of it are searingly, heartrendingly poignant; others definitely veer towards the kitsch.
What I do know is that conductor Hugh Wolff and the NEC Philharmonia certainly rose to the challenge of performing this sprawling, hour-long symphony at Boston’s Symphony Hall. Regardless of the decidedly mixed critical opinion, it strikes me as a really hard piece to play, with a huge number of forces (celeste, two harps, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, full battery of percussion) being asked to play both with tremendous, brutish force as well as precise, controlled delicacy. Not to mention those moments of extreme, naked exposure – just ask the trumpets, horns, flutes, or bassoons! Or for that matter, just check out the achingly long lines of the English horn solo in the final movement.
Above all, it strikes me as a symphony requiring enormous concentration both to conduct and to perform. The symphony clocks in at just over an hour, after all. And from a producer’s perspective, I certainly was exhausted at the end! But all in a day’s work for Hugh Wolff, who did a masterful job of keeping all the forces together, and sculpting a shape and arc out of the sprawl.
Not to mention calming the NEC student’s nerves – playing in Symphony Hall for the first time in four years. Playing a piece that I was surprised to discover had never been performed by the hall’s “house band.” (Neither Seiji Ozawa nor James Levine were fans of DSCH, but…not even any guest conductors?).
This was the biggest and hardest of the three pieces on the program, (the others being the Beethoven “Egmont” Overture and the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1), and we’re going to produce them in reverse order. It’s all part of NEC’s season-long series of thematic presentations called Truth to Power, and I had the great pleasure of directing the shoot at Symphony Hall. Today’s post contains the whole symphony; the story behind it will come next.