At first glance, Leonard Bernstein and Dmitri Shostakovich do not seem to be the most natural concert pairing. But we are in Bernstein’s centennial year and, like theaters all over the world, the BBC Proms is keeping up with several programs that include the celebrated American composer’s works. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s concert on August 27 featured two Bernstein selections: the brief Slava! A Political Overture (1977), followed by the second of his three symphonies, which dates from 1949. Uncharacteristically, the Bernstein was followed by Shostakovich’s monumental and politically charged Fifth Symphony, which premiered in 1937, at the height of Stalin’s horrific purges.
Bernstein wrote the jaunty, musical theater–derived number Slava! A Political Overture to celebrate the exiled Soviet cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich’s arrival as the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. Its premiere occurred during an all-Bernstein program that the maestro—a student of Shostakovich—had specially programmed in honor of his new country in the person of its leading musician. The conductor Marin Alsop, a student of Bernstein who has directed the Baltimore ensemble since 2007, led the BBC performance buoyantly, with all the drive and energy necessary to remind us that its two major themes come from Bernstein’s spectacular failure of a musical, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976). Despite its presidential subject, considerable critical praise for Bernstein’s score, and its premiere in America’s bicentennial year, Pennsylvania closed after just seven performances. But Slava is triumphant: the short piece ends with a cry of “Slava!” from the musicians themselves—a clever play on words that both hailed Rostropovich (“Slava” is a common diminutive form of the medieval-sounding Mstislav) and recalled the regal coronation scene that opens Mussorgsky’s 1874 opera Boris Godunov (“Slava” is also Russian for “glory”).
Even beyond this Russian-American moment, the two symphonies have more in common than meets the eye. Both dwell on alienation from a frightening and ever less familiar modern world. Moving back in time to Bernstein’s intensely productive youth, his Second Symphony is a musical setting of W. H. Auden’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Age of Anxiety (1947), a long poem in which four strangers in a bar muse on their profound sense of alienation. In the first part of Bernstein’s symphony, the four weave through life’s complexities, entering the more contemplative second half’s “dirge” of sorrow and “masque” of affected joy before recovering faith in the meaning of existence in a triumphant “epilogue.” All the while, their swelling emotions are interrogated by a contemplative piano, lovingly played in this concert by the French master Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who this year alone has performed the piece with the orchestras of Atlanta, Houston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Washington. There is a risk that the soloist could intrude to the point of reducing the work to a piano concerto, but Thibaudet’s discrete tones deftly avoided that.
Shostakovich, composing just twelve years earlier, employed the symphonic form to explore another facet of modern alienation: the deadly atomization of his society under Stalin. Only a year before, in 1936, the composer had suffered national disgrace when an unsigned article in Pravda, purportedly written by Stalin himself, denounced his newly premiered modernist opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District as “muddle instead of music” and declared it inaccessible to the masses whom the communist revolution claimed as its beneficiaries. Amid the era’s savage cultural politics, such a judgment could be a death sentence. Shostakovich fretted for years as his friends, colleagues, relatives, and protectors in the government vanished into the hell of the Terror, often meeting violent ends. The likelihood of his own survival was doubtful, and his escape from the Terror has never been satisfactorily explained: the most appealing version is that the investigator assigned to persecute him was himself executed, proving that there can sometimes be a bigger fish with sharper teeth.
For the crowds at the premiere, the Fifth Symphony seemed like a cathartic depiction of survival in the most adverse times they had ever known.
Afraid for his life, Shostakovich withdrew his dangerously avant-garde Fourth Symphony from performance just before its premiere and composed theFifth in a far more traditional idiom that lent itself to conformist interpretations. While not devoid of creativity or innovative elements, it follows a progression of struggle and sorrow before exploding in a triumphant major-key Allegro with driving brass and percussion. For the Soviet cultural establishment, the work stood as a musical allegory of victorious revolutionary struggle—and perhaps even as a personal artistic apology for Shostakovich’s recent modernist deviations (memoirs dubiously attributed to the composer claimed that the symphony’s structure was the forced outcome of political pressure). But despite this official interpretation, for the crowds at the premiere, the symphony seemed like a cathartic depiction of survival in the most adverse times they had ever known. Taking the place of the symphonic form’s traditional third-movement scherzo, an achingly morose Largo moved many in the audience to tears as they contemplated the darkness of their own lives. The victorious finale, which seemed to promise deliverance from that horror, was greeted by a thirty-minute ovation during which the conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky raised the score above his head in homage, forever marking it as one of the composer’s greatest successes, if not necessarily sparing him the vicious turns of Soviet cultural policy (Shostakovich survived, but was in 1948 fired from his conservatory posts on aesthetic grounds, an act that prompted his student, the young cellist Rostropovich, to drop out in protest).
Alsop and her ensemble seemed more at home in the Bernstein symphony, a searching series of poetic scenes whose music, the composer claimed, came to him as he read Auden’s poem. The conductor’s sensibilities about what Bernstein likely intended were visible in every gesture. He was, after all, her teacher. In the Shostakovich symphony, however, the orchestra sounded brassier and almost garish; Alsop’s movements gravitated toward an unnatural somberness that seemed rather affected. Compared to the gravitas that Russian orchestras bring to the piece, this sounded like a Technicolor version.