Shostakovich Slips the Noose:
by Jeff Tompkins
Quatuor Debussy and Circa
Opus | Brooklyn Academy of Music | NOVEMBER 6, 2015
I sat down for Opus, at BAM, with a certain amount of skepticism. A French string quartet, the Quatuor Debussy, playing three Shostakovich string quartets while a troupe of Australian acrobats gamboled around them onstage? And the musicians were going to be blindfolded for part of the performance? The word gimmicky wasn’t the furthest thing from my mind as I tried to warm to this scenario.
My reservations had a lot do with the profusion of flashy hybrid classical music events that have turned up in New York lately. In recent months, Lincoln Center has given us a recital of Schubert’s Winterreise accompanied by William Kentridge’s hyperactive black-and-white animations; Gil Shaham has performed Bach’s solo violin sonatas and partitas in front of projected slow-motion art films at Carnegie Hall; and before the end of 2015, Igor Levit will have played Bach’s Goldberg Variations inside Marina Abramović’s “method for listening” at the Park Avenue Armory.
You have to wonder if all these big-ticket items don’t betray a certain anxiety on the part of the programmers—an increasingly pervasive concern that 21st century audiences have to be given something to look at if classical music is going to stay alive, let alone remain relevant, in an image-saturated culture. It’s a concern that tends to put a skeptic in the position of fuddy-duddy contrarian, shaking his cane and muttering about how a musician on the level of Gil Shaham shouldn’t need audiovisual accompaniment in order to hold an audience’s interest, or about how music, in at least some of these contexts, invariably plays a supporting role to whatever viewers (and they are viewers more than listeners) are really focusing on.
And yet, all that aside, my suspicions regarding Opus were misplaced. From the very first moments, and across an eighty-five minute running time, the performance was thrilling. Playing from memory and without an intermission, the Quatuor Debussy offered fluent, assured renditions of the Shostakovich String Quartets Nos. 11, 8, and 5, while the fourteen men and women of the Circa acrobatic troupe swirled all around them in a series of intricate solos, duos, and group routines choreographed by their artistic director, Yaron Lifschitz.
What distinguished Opus from the kind of event I cited above is that it didn’t rely on technological novelty—the inevitable multimedia that we’re all supposedly primed to love—but on arguably the most basic theatrical material of all: human bodies in motion. It was clear from the silent-movie pratfalls two male performers enacted in the first movement of String Quartet No. 11 that the evening’s entertainment value was going to be high, and sure enough Circa’s feats of strength and agility, not to mention timing and coordination, made for great theater in their own right. (I’ve never heard so many audience members gasp in unison at a BAM event.) The absence of an intermission, meanwhile, created a mood of hushed intensity, sustained over nearly an hour and a half, that other classical presenters should take as a model.
Lifschitz and his collaborators didn’t reveal new depths in this music so much as new facets. It could be that certain affinities have been there all along in Shostakovich’s string quartets—strains that echo, ever so faintly, the zany streak that runs through his work from the late 1920s and early ’30s, like the first piano concerto and the opera The Nose. One clue comes in Laurel Fay’s 2000 biography, when the composer is quoted as telling a group of his composition students in the 1940s, “The circus is the purest of art forms. And note that like any genuine art form it brooks no counterfeit.” Opus repaid that respect in kind. The acrobats assembled and reassembled themselves into a series of increasingly preposterous human bridges and pyramids that a solo performer would then try to scale, and as they became more elaborate these breathtaking constructions were all the more poignant for being necessarily ephemeral. It was possible to read each routine as an emblem of human striving—a visual analogue to the sort of embattled sweetness that occasionally breaks through Shostakovich’s agitated surfaces.
One tableau sticks in memory as a particularly vivid rendering of the ambiguities in this music. Late in the String Quartet No. 5, a solo female performer climbed a long fabric cord suspended from the ceiling and proceeded to wind it around her neck, in a scenario that was disturbingly suggestive of either imminent suicide or erotic asphyxiation, take your pick. But just as the moment threatened to tip into exploitation, she managed an ingenious Houdini-like escape from the noose—partly using her feet, no less—that had audience members clapping. (Here and throughout, credit belonged equally to the Quatuor Debussy, who demonstrated heroic sang-froid while every manner of pandemonium unfolded all around them.)
Finally, Opus was as notable for what it didn’t include as what it did. At no time in this near-ninety minutes of Shostakovich did a hammer-and-sickle appear anywhere on stage; the name Stalin was nowhere in evidence; and while it’s true that in his director’s note accompanying the program, Lifschitz professed to hear allusions to the KGB knocking on the door in the eighth quartet, mercifully he wasn’t moved to act on that idea in his choreography. I mention this because the insistence on parsing Shostakovich’s music through his position vis-à-vis Soviet authority at any given time, and on ferreting out political messages supposedly encoded in the music, shows no sign of abating in the second decade of the 21st century. In fact, it’s a tendency that seems to have been given renewed impetus lately, with the release earlier this year of the composer’s Symphony No. 10 in a new Deutsche Grammophon recording by Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony—the first installment in a series, we’re told, that will have the catchall heading “Shostakovich Under Stalin’s Shadow.”
Without meaning to disparage an impressive album, I have to wonder how much of a service it does to Shostakovich to present his work under this kind of rubric in 2015. For one thing, the conceit isn’t exactly fresh: back in 2008, Deutsche Grammophon released a live recording by the Los Angeles Philharmonic of excerpts from his opera Lady Macbeth of The Mtsensk District under the title “Shadow of Stalin.” More importantly, the heroic subversive some Western commentators still seem determined to see in the composer arguably has as much to do with wish-fulfillment as it does with the historical record. A much more compromised and ambiguous figure emerges from Fay’s still-definitive biography; by the time you finish reading that book you understand why a later generation of Soviet artists and dissidents, like Brodsky and Solzhenitsyn, ran out of patience with Shostakovich during the Brezhnev era. The idealizing of Shostakovich as artist-hero is too dependent on the portrait of him in Solomon Volkov’s 1979 book Testimony, the putative “as-told-to” memoir that by now has been discredited as unreliable. (To me a more persuasive guide to the man is an outright work of fiction, William Vollmann’s 2005 historical novel Europe Central: Vollmann’s imagining of Shostakovich manages to be simultaneously unsparing, sympathetic, and mordantly funny in a way that feels just right.)
And a larger question remains. When you’re sitting in the concert hall, how much do these debates matter? One of my most memorable experiences at any classical music concert came five years ago when I heard Charles Dutoit lead the Philadelphia Orchestra in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, “The Year 1905,” at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. The symphony’s second movement is an ominous march that builds relentlessly to a climax, and in this performance Dutoit ratcheted up the tension to the point where it became a kind of pleasurable agony—by the time the percussion and brass joined in, I wondered if this was what it would feel like to be annihilated by a symphony orchestra. Then, with the tiniest gesture, barely a flick of the conductor’s wrist, the whole thing shut off; the entire Kimmel Hall was silent for a few seconds before the aftermath began to take shape in barely audible strings and an eerie celesta. The thrill that ran through the audience in those seconds was almost physically palpable.
Ostensibly the movement depicts the massacre of more than two hundred peasant demonstrators by the Czar’s police in February 1905—as the subtitle makes clear, the Symphony No. 11, which premiered in 1957, is program music meant to evoke specific historical events. Meanwhile, our booklet notes at the Kimmel Center that Sunday afternoon dutifully explained that according to some sources the second movement also doubles as Shostakovich’s acknowledgment of the Soviet Union’s brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising in the fall of 1956. But I remember thinking, after the concert (and long before I learned that the veracity of the Hungarian claim rests on shaky foundations), that this was far from the best way to sell the music to the public. We had just enjoyed a sonic spectacular, music I felt from the soles of my feet up to the hairs on top of my head. Why not celebrate it in those terms, rather than treating it like a series of carefully concealed topic sentences?
(You could argue that program music like the Eleventh Symphony—which, to be clear, doesn’t rise anywhere near the level of the string quartets—already invites a certain amount of ponderous interpretation or exegesis. But listeners should also be free to take or leave the meanings a composer assigns to his or her own work as they will.)
All of which helps explain why Opus felt so refreshing last month at BAM. This exhilarating spectacle allowed us to experience some of Shostakovich’s best pieces in a new context, free from tendentious arguments about politics or what the composer was really “trying to say.” Like the woman acrobat who dangled high above the stage late in the Quartet No. 5, the music was able to slip the noose of meaning—and got away clean.
JEFF TOMPKINS, a writer and comics artist in New York City, is the Online Content and Community Manager for the Library of America.