The mark of a great orchestra is its ability to play delicate and exposed passages with great softness while rising to the occasion of the swells.
The Savannah Philharmonic proved not only their sonic might at the Feb. 9 Musician's Choice concert, but their ability to paint with pastels.
In Dec. 1953, Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich gave the first performance of his 10th symphony, only months after the death of the brutal Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. This was a historic landmark in the history of Russian music not only because it signified a cultural shift under the Soviet regime but some theorize, for Shostakovich, it was a release of long pent-up hatred.
During his career, Shostakovich had fallen both in and out of favor with Stalin and the state--receiving both praise and threats for his musical contributions. Conversely, he had received criticism from his peers who thought that his music had pulled away from many of the modernist principles that were pushing the boundaries of Russian music during his time. It is with all of this social dissonance that his 10th symphony is characterized by many as his best.
The powerhouse of his tenth symphony loomed large over the program as the audience anticipated this rarely heard symphony.
The Philharmonic opened the night's program with Johannes Brahms’ Double Concerto featuring the brothers Benny and Eric Kim on Violin and Cello.
Conductor Peter Shannon commanded the orchestra which performed Brahms with academic precision. The clean and crisp playing of the strings opened the first movement along with Eric Kim’s opening theme on cello. It was apparent in the chemistry between the musicians that this was a favorite.
The Kim brothers had grown up playing this piece together, but it's been a while since they had performed it as soloists. Given their clear dedication to this performance the appearance was as if they had never stopped playing it at all.
Throughout the piece, the orchestra displayed its ability to contrast vastly different timbres, tempi and volume. The soloists played to near perfection. Benny Kim gave long, soaring and difficult lines with a solid accompaniment from the ensemble. At times it felt very in the pocket for Brahms and lacked sufficient swell and emotion, but it could have also been the musicians staying loose for the main event.
Before the intermission, Mr. Shannon stayed out on the podium to give the audience a brief lecture on Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10. It was notable that Shannon went head first with the narrative that Shostakovich had written the piece’s second movement Scherzo, as a definite portrait to Stalin despite varying accounts and dispute among musicologists. However, his ability to craft a narrative set up a spectacular performance.
The opening movement was played flawlessly by the orchestra.
A deep, brooding tone from the lower strings was played with haunting softness. Shannon, who conducted from memory, was able to connect with the musicians and extract meaning with every repetition of the main theme. The woodwinds entered to this rich dark tone with the second theme which only built on the outstanding ensemble performance.
The movement in question, the second, was played furiously, evoking those strong emotions the conductor had set up during intermission. At this point the ensemble was really starting to let loose. Given the great intensity both emotionally and physically, the ability of the ensemble to show versatility was quite admirable.
While this work presents many musical and technical challenges for any orchestra it’s clear that this piece was prepared with dedication and a deep respect for the composer and music. Many of the absurd and grotesque motifs were accentuated as if the audience had a war film playing right in front of them.
When it was all over the crowd gave them thundering support. As they rose to their feet Shannon gave thanks to the various soloists who had been featured in the work: true soldiers for the musical cause.
Hopefully, we can never imagine what it is like to experience the trauma of living under an authoritarian regime.
But for one night we got a taste of what it was like for Shostakovich.
Daniel Garrick is a composer, writer and musician living in Savannah. He studied music theory, composition and musicology at Westminster Choir College and Princeton University. Previously, he has written for contemporary classical music magazine I Care If You Listen.