Walter Waugaman
Posted on Sat, Feb. 27, 2010

A grim 'Year 1905,' a polished orchestra
By Peter Dobrin
Inquirer Classical Music Critic
Crowds are massing on the square, where it's cold and eerily quiet. They've come to deliver a petition, these thousands of unarmed, peaceful demonstrators. A trumpet signals the advance of troops on the crowds. In the end, hundreds, perhaps a thousand, are shot or trampled to death.
When this is the explicit program of a night at the orchestra, as it was Thursday, applauding is about the last thing you feel like doing. And yet there was no choice, given the polish and power of the Philadelphia Orchestra and Charles Dutoit in SC's Symphony No. 11, "The Year 1905."
The verdict of our time is that music is best considered in context - what real-life references does a score contain, what was the composer's emotional state at the time of writing? Such thinking understates the value of abstract musical meaning, but there's no way to experience Shostakovich's 11th without listening for "Bloody Sunday," the central event in the 1905 Russian Revolution. To do so would be like hearing John Adams' On the Transmigration of Souls divorced from 9/11.
Yet Shostakovich's world is remote. He manipulates numerous preexisting workers' tunes, a layer of meaning no doubt lost today. Still, the emotional ambiguities and bitter ironies remain, and their potency was heightened by this orchestra's frightening steamroller of sound. Dutoit's eyes were glued to his score for the entire harrowing experience, with good reason. His two hands led impressively independent lives, often tending to different sides of the orchestra.
Beauty isn't the intent of this piece. Still, you had to be struck by the orchestral writing, not to mention its realization. The violent fugue depicting the moment of confrontation was aptly frenetic. A viola-section solo was as muted and mournful as it was astringent. The English horn solo is a long tightrope walk, but, as played by Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia, was cunningly shaped for subtle changes in emotional intent.
With a piece that declares its place emphatically at one end of the art-entertainment spectrum, what to program on the other half is hardly obvious. The Brahms Violin Concerto, though, had an intensity of its own with Janine Jansen as soloist. The Dutch violinist has a large, sweet sound, and was as engaging in her interface with the ensemble as in her cadenzas. Dutoit, too, dug into some detailed interpretive work. It did not, and could not, come off as a piece with extra-musical relevance, the way the Shostakovich did. Within its own parameters, though, this was a Brahms Violin Concerto of deep emotional reward.

My additional NOTE: The Brahms Violin Concerto was played first followed by the Shostakovich. The Shostakovich Symphony No. 11 which takes an hour to perform was played without pausing between movements. The orchestra members must have been exhausted by the end of the evening's program! Even though I heartily agree with Peter Dobrin's comment in his review that "Beauty isn't the intent of this piece.", I can't imagine how this work could have been performed any better than it was tonight and I have heard it all five times it was previously performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra! Also, in view of Mr. Dobrin's comment, It seemed to me to be more like symphonic cacophony.
Posted on 28 Feb 2010, 5:02 AM