Mariss Jansons and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra Review- Shostakovich 7 at Symphony Center

On April 17, 2016, the Symphony Center Presents PowerShares QQQ Orchestra series concluded. Latvian born conductor Mariss Jansons, 73, arguably the greatest baton-wielder alive and his masterful Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra wowed the sold-out audience at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago with the performance of  Dimitri Shostakovich’s mammoth Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60, 1939-40, known as the “Leningrad”. Composed and first performed by a half-starved orchestra during the 900 day Nazi siege of Leningrad, it has conflicted music-lovers since it’s inception. Many listeners and critics have called it too long and too emotional, but it is well known as the anthem “that defied Hitler”, a testament to the more than 25 million Soviet citizens who ultimately lost their lives in World War 2. It’s not a piece to everyone’s taste, strong and soaring, and obviously demonstrative of invading troops, particularly in the powerful and incandescent first movement. However, it’s a piece that must resonate in this conductor’s oeuvre, as Janson’s was hidden by his Jewess mother immediately after birth, her father and brother already having been murdered by the Nazis; also, Jansons trained in Leningrad, before and since known as St. Petersburg. Although Jansons allegedly stopped conducting the Russian composers almost 15 years ago, he has made an exception for the works of Shostakovich.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; photo courtesy of Astrid Ackermann

He couldn’t have chosen a piece of music better calculated to demonstrate the combined strengths of this composer, this orchestra or it’s conductor. The symphony is Shostakovich's longest, approximately 75 minutes in duration, and written in the traditional four movements. The first movement, allegretto, in sonata form, is approximately 30 minutes long, and begins with a rousing and uplifting theme initially played by all the strings, then followed and echoed by the woodwind instruments. At first the melody continues to rise in pitch, and then quiets, leading directly into the famous so-called “invasion theme”, which dominates most of the movement.  This march is repeated twelve times, louder and more accented each time, and sounds very like an invasion, wonderful, awful, hair-raising, ominous, dominant. At the end of the 12th repetition, a new and frantic theme, propelled by the brass, especially the trumpets, arises and is said to signal the arrival of the invaders.

The second movement, moderato, at 10-15 minutes long the shortest in the symphony. Originally entitled “Memories”, it begins with a quiet theme described as playful, led by the strings. This is followed by a shrill woodwinds-led theme which leads to a quick and majestic passage and a return to the woodwinds.

The third movement, adagio, 15-20 minutes long, is structured like the second, with a slow first theme, leading to a faster middle that evokes the first movement, and then a return to the initial theme. The original title was “Our Country’s Wide spaces”, and Shostakovich has said he hoped to evoke Leningrad by twilight. A simple woodwind theme commences with sustained slow notes which segue into a “faster and fiercer” passage, building into a loud and almost frantic portion, which dies quickly away into the original theme.

Mariss Jansons; photo courtesy of the Bavarian Radio Symphony

Finally, the glorious fourth movement, allegro non troppo, 15-20 minutes long, begins with a quiet and seeking strings-led melody which suddenly turns into a march-type tune, with quick interjected points from the rest of the orchestra, increasing in frenzy. A sense of foreboding ensues, while earlier melodies are invoked, and the tension mounts to the “’ferocious” climax. The piece ends as it began, in the key of C major- almost blaring, explosive, not joyous, but profound.

Throughout the impressive performance, Jansons is in full, almost eerie accord with the music. His hands move independently of each other, certainly he is ambidextrous.  The left will beckon seductively, the right temper and quell the sound; sometimes the baton is aloft in one expressive hand, sometimes it rules imperiously in the other. Ramrod straight, his hair still dark, impeccable in black tails, he is in full charge of the exquisitely tuned orchestra. The sound pours forth, the buildups and dying offs measured and perfect; the technique throughout exquisite, and seemingly effortless. This was a concentrated performance of consummate proficiency, a dramatic piece impeccably rendered. While it’s true Chicago audiences are very generous with their ovations, this one was very special. The audience leapt to their feet and remained clapping through 5 curtain calls. Jansons returned again and again, calling forth each segment of the orchestra to stand, turn and bow, until grinning widely, he crossed both hands over his heart, bowed very deeply himself, and left the stage for good.


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