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Slava, Sergei and Dmitri

Academy of Music
12/09/2000 -  
Sergei Prokofieff: Excerpts from Romeo and Juliet
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony # 10

Philadelphia Orchestra
Mstislav Rostropovich (conductor)

Although one always holds out hope for a new golden age in future, those of use of a certain generation feel that little serious music of any substance has been written since the mid-1970's with the demise of Britten and Shostakovich. As time inexorably grinds on there are fewer and fewer people alive to testify to the greatness of the men who created this music and less and less opportunity hear truly authentic performances. It was thus a special treat to journey to Philadelphia this weekend to listen to a man who was not only a personal friend of the last in the line but who also deeply affected the course of mid-twentieth century music.

Mstislav Rostropovich could have had a fine career as a concert pianist, so varied and vast is his musical ability (witness his distinguished accompaniments of his wife Galina Vishnevskaya) but instead became arguably the most forceful presence at the cello of anyone in the century. Many composers wrote for Slava, including the two presented last evening. As his career progressed he turned to the podium, becoming a fine conductor of the National Symphony in Washington at a time when doing so as a former Soviet citizen spoke volumes of Cold War rhetoric (his Shostakovich Fifth at Wolf Trap so many years ago still sings in my mind's ear). From his bully pulpit he could propagate the music of his beloved friends and countrymen, even going so far as to make a convincing argument that Shostakovich was the Beethoven of the twentieth century and would be remembered as such in music histories of the future.

All of this is done with the highest quality and minutest attention to detail. Starting his excerpts from Romeo with the Montague and Capulet section he dug in with the orchestra as percussively as he had attacked the cello (and inspired Shostakovich to write as he did in his first concerto for the instrument) and relentlessly never gave up the intensity which was his trademark as a soloist. Never have I heard this magnificent orchestra sound as crisp or as tight, even taking into consideration the less that ideal acoustics of the Academy. I often have the experience of coming here and thinking that this ensemble is great but that they invariably sound better at Carnegie Hall. Last evening I did not have that same sense, this wizard of a conductor conquering the bete noir of the hall. These excerpts were heavily on the dramatic side and were punctuated by the excellent Philadelphia percussion, but perhaps the most amazing sonic section was the Aubade with concertmaster David Kim playing a sweet and delicate duet with the mandolin. Seldom have I heard such a prolonged ovation after the first half of a concert, Rostropovich, himself not much of a seeker of personal recognition, pointing out many of the individual members of the orchestra for special applause.

From a dramatic intensity perspective the pairing of the violent Prokofieff with the deeply disturbing Shostakovich was brilliant, however it was perhaps a little unfair to the musicians. Inevitably there was some intonational flagging in the brass and winds in the broad and chilly landscape of the 10th but much less than one might expect. Nolan Miller led his put upon horn section with great grace and power, not breaking under the pressure and still strong in the penultimate section of the complex finale. The marvelous Philadelphia strings were truly golden throughout this masterwork which Maestro takes a little slower than most, emphasizing its breathtaking beauty, not its dangerous levels of adrenalin. The score is a long go for some and yet the crowd seemed attuned throughout, positively mesmerized by the artistry unfolding before them. Rostropovich worked very hard throughout, searching the score for even more inspiration and exhorting his minions for just a little more depth in crucial spots (it must be rather daunting for the cello section to look up at him). It seemed that we were indeed hearing the tortured voice of the Soviet people and that particular cry of the wounded animal which was the personal mantra of the composer. All were left with the feeling that they had witnessed a great reading. By a considerable margin, this was the best orchestral concert that I have heard this season.

There are only a few left. When this mighty handful of musicians passes it will be the end of a glorious era. Eventually even those of us who were fortunate enough to have heard the interpreters will vanish. Our existence will be only a memory but hopefully we will serve as inspiration for generations to come to speak with their own voices and express the innermost longings of their own hearts.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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