In a fall and winter season full of concertgoing highlights, two New York concerts stood out for me: the Mannes School of Music Orchestra playing Shostakovich’s “Symphony # 5” at Norton Symphony Space and the Juilliard Orchestra performing the full-length concert version of Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe”, complete with chorus at Alice Tully Hall. The Shostakovich was conducted by Korean conductor Taeyoung Lee who recently moved to the US to finish his masters of music in conducting at Mannes, and the Ravel was conducted by the Montreal native Yannick Nehnet-Seguin, who will take over as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra come 2012.
The Symphony #5, which is very popular and considered a warhorse in symphonic repertory, was Shostakovich’s do-or-die attempt to get in the good graces of Stalin, who disliked his previous work, the opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District”. A negative review of that opera appeared in next day’s communist gazette. This review was widely believed to have been written by Stalin himself. What to do when your head was literally on the chopping block? Shostakovich came up with this stunning symphony which, while satisfying the need of the comrades for quasi-patriotic bombast, contains enough ambiguity that hint at sarcasm and satire. Its true heart and highlight is the 3rd movement, the Largo. It sounds like a cry for help and a requiem at the same time for the Russian people who were caught up at that moment of history in the infamous Stalinist purges. This is a triumphant symphony in every sense of the word, yet it hints at layers of meanings that Shostakovich refused to divulge or elaborate on. In fact, he did not put any markings on the score that could be open to political interpretration, just indications of dynamics.
The Mannes Orchestra is composed of students and alumni of the Mannes school, so naturally it sounded tight, secure and assured. Under the conductor Taeyoung Lee, who showed great acumen and insight into the interpretation of the piece, the symphony shone sharp, acerbic, grave and yes, bombastic, especially in the finale. How can one not be thrilled by the final poundings of the timpani that some wag had interpreted as Shostakovich’s version of Stalin forcing people to show great joy and happiness for party and motherland?
The “Daphnis et Chloe” suites 1 & 2, on the other hand, were a glorious mishmash of episodes from the music that Ravel wrote on commission from Serge Diaghilev for the Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo. Normally orchestras play only the more popular 2nd suite, and oftentimes without the chorus. On this occasion, the Juilliard Orchestra played both suites with the Desoff choir. I have heard the 2nd suite played on video by the BBC proms orchestra without the chorus. The difference is palpable. The sound is so much richer with addition of the wordless voices. Of course, it helped that the performance was live, at the Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln center, and the conductor was Yannick Nezet-Seguin.
The suites represent the summit of orchestration and reveal Ravel’s mastery and skill in this artform.
The opening of the 3rd act of suite #2 is considered by many the most perfect orchestral evocation of breaking dawn.
The orchestra was in fine form. Really, it was heads and shoulders above other school orchestras. Like the Mannes, the members of this orchestra were performing artists in their own right. The choir was the professional Desoff choir, which has been in existence since 1929 and has tackled everything from Monteverdi to Stravinsky.
“Daphnis & Chloe” was a ravishing sensuous, impressionist triumph and maestro Yannick proved to the savvy but adoring New York crowd who occupied every seat in Alice Tully Hall and stood in line for two hours in freezing weather for (free) tickets, that all the hoopla about him was well-deserved and warranted.
On a side-note: I read that Yannick was born in 1975, the year I was in Tokyo competing in the Yamaha Organ Festival. Time flies, indeed, for many of us!