A Study in Contrasts

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 13, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Tuesday night’s concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, under guest conductor Jeffrey Kahane, was a study in contrasts—two great works in the Western classical tradition but diametrically opposed in mood, scope, dynamics and content.

Mozart is said to have burst into tears when hearing a trumpet as a child. One wonders what he would have thought of the brutal orchestration of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 in E Minor (Opus 93). Would he have joined in the standing ovation from a capacity crowd at Merrill Auditorium?

Kahane’s performance of the Mozart Concerto No. 17 in G Major, for Piano and Orchestra, which he conducted from the piano, was uncanny in its realization of the composer’s intent

I asked Matt Guggenheim, the Steinway technical affiliate for Maine, if Kahane had requested a tuning more similar to that of pianos in Mozart’s time. He did not—the tuning is standard for PSO concerts—but the placement of the piano, keyboard toward the audience and strings pointed upstage, coupled with the removal of the lid, gave it an entirely different sound, in addition to enabling Kahane, like Mozart, to conduct effectively, both sitting and standing, from the piano bench.

“Effectively” is not a strong enough word. Every single note, pause and change ini dynamics contributed to a supremely musical and balanced whole, without a scintilla of empty virtuosity. Even the cadenzas, those icons of showmanship, contributed to the sense of unity.

The tempo was fast, yes, but one felt that Mozart would have played it exactly the same way. For anyone familiar with this concerto, it was a peak experience, unequaled by any recording.

Neither could a recording do justice to the monumental 10th. Shostakovich opens the floodgates to the torrent of emotions he experienced on the death of his nemesis, Stalin. One can imagine him echoing the sentiments of another artist confronting powerful critics: “Just outlive the bastards.”

The Stalin-Shostakovich conflict was a matter of life and death rather than mere name calling, and the long opening movement of the symphony is a threnody to the deaths of millions under the dictator’s reign. The shorter second movement is a sustained hiss at evil and totalitarianism. The message is that buffoons in power can also be dangerous.

The scherzo of the third movement is jubilant, and introduces a theme based on the letters of the composer’s name. Here his satyrical waltz motifs, relieved of their double meanings, sound almost Straussian.

Finally, in the Andante-Allegro, Shostakovich goes around shouting his name at the top of his voice, like an ADD schoolboy at recess. He finally comes to his senses, realizing new possibilities, but ends with a final ferocious nailing of the name theme by the timpani.  All it needs is a holly stake.

The audience rewarded a tremendous performance with a long standing ovation, while Kahane went around the stage, congratulating individual orchestra members, from piccolo to percussion, all of whom had given more than heir best.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

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