Louisville Orchestra: Shostakovich Fifth Symphony

Teddy Abrams, conductor

Inon Barnatan, piano

By Shaun Kenney 

Entire contents are copyright © 2014 Shaun Kenney. All rights reserved.

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of music composed for the symphony orchestra. I love the classics like Mozart and Beethoven but I am also drawn to the more contemporary 20th century pieces such as those that were performed this evening by the Louisville Orchestra. 

The program began with a work written by John Adams who is, according to conductor Teddy Abrams, probably the most well-known current American composer next to John Williams. The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra is an “out-take” from Act III of Adams’ opera Nixon in China. The piece opens with a driving half-time eighth-note rhythm presented by the bassoons and violas. The horns, piccolo, and clarinets are then layered into this rhythm quickly followed by off-beat piano, harp, and string chords. Muted brass accents the piece throughout with percussive, syncopated notes. Though there are smoother and gentler sections, the majority of the composition is pushed forward by these quick rhythms. In this work Adams is painting us a picture of a banquet in which Madame Mao begins to dance to the music of a gramophone. Chairman Mao eventually descends from his portrait and together, the couple foxtrots into the past. The work ends with the “wind-down” of the gramophone which is depicted brilliantly in the percussion section. 

Much like the piece before it, I found the frantic rhythm of the introduction to the first movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major to be very exciting. It begins with a whip crack from the percussion section as if to say “hold on for the ride.” The piano enters with grand glissandos up and down the full length of the keyboard. Trumpets and horns add their voices to the mix. After this exhilarating introduction the tempo slows down and after a short passage from the English horn we are treated to a decidedly Spanish-feeling piano solo. Ravel incorporates a bit of jazz and at times I was reminded of Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin. This composition is clearly very technical, both for the soloist and the orchestra as a whole. I have to say that my favorite part of the evening was watching pianist Inon Barnatan at work. He was expressive with his entire body and you could easily tell that he was letting the music flow through him, out his talented fingertips, and onto the keyboard. This is the thing I love most about any type of live music. When a musician is on top of their game they really let the music take them somewhere. This, in turn, takes you as an audience member through the same journey and the performance is all the better for it.

After a brief intermission it was time for the “headliner” of the evening, Symphony No. 5 in D minor Op. 47 by Dimitri Shostakovich. The conductor, Teddy Abrams, gave the audience a bit of the history of this work which I, as someone who rarely reads program notes, appreciated. Composed in the height of Stalin’s purges, Shostakovich was lucky to not only have the composition approved by Stalin and his aesthetic standards, but the work was also greatly acclaimed and admired by the public. In fact, the premier performance received a 40 minute ovation, almost as long as the performance itself.  I thought it an interesting and relevant parallel that Mr. Abrams chose this particular piece, given the current oppressive political atmosphere in Russia. The performance of the entire symphony was near perfect. Though I found myself losing interest in the second and third movements I would say that is a matter of personal opinion regarding the piece itself and not the performance of it. The fourth movement, probably the most recognized section of the symphony, immediately grabs your attention with a trilling crescendo leading into strong timpani beats and an aggressive theme by the brass. The symphony ended with grand major chords, full of rich layers, energy, and resonance. It was a lovely and dramatic way to close out the evening.

Shostakovich Fifth Symphony

February 27 & March 1, 2014

Louisville Orchestra
Whitney Hall
501 W. Main St
Louisville, KY 40202