Orchestral Music Review



Two (More) Sides of Shostakovich at NCSU

April 30, 2006 - Raleigh, NC:


On Sunday afternoon, April 30, NCSU's Stewart Theatre was the site for the second of two concerts by the Raleigh Civic Symphony Association celebrating the 100th anniversary of Dmitri Shostakovich's birth. For this performance, Music Director Randolph Foy led the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra.

This was a celebration of another sort as well: the tenth anniversary of Dr. Foy's tenure with the RCS, which was noted with speeches, presentations, and the announcement that Foy is receiving the Raleigh Medal of Arts.* (For more background on Foy, the RCS and Shostakovich, please see John Lambert's comprehensive review of the first concert on April 23.)

Shostakovich's musical life can be divided into two main parts: the first years up to 1936, when the composer felt free to write what he wanted, and then everything following that year, after having received strong criticism from the Soviet government, warning him to change his style. Foy's program offered a work from each part, instructive in their stark contrast. Further interest came from the fact that both pieces were adapted and arranged by someone else.

The first was the little known suite of music written in 1931 to accompany a vaudeville show called Hypothetically Dead (or alternatively translated as Conditionally Killed). The popularity of the music hall revue, combining everything from singing and dancing to comedians and circus acts, was becoming suspect to the Soviet government in 1931, so the show producers tried to get around the criticism by introducing a flimsy story-line about an air-raid drill (a regular requirement by the government), during which a man is mistakenly declared dead. This allowed many possibilities for fantasy and dream sequences, incorporating jugglers, an underwater ballet and a jazz band.

Unfortunately, the original orchestra parts were lost with only 40 pages of piano score surviving. Noted UK arranger Gerald McBurney took up the task of orchestrating those pages, crafting a suite of twenty short pieces, of which Foy chose a representative dozen. McBurney did a fine job, the instrumentation easily recalling the composer's style from his most popular works.

Foy understood the cheeky, satirical nature of this music, handily infusing his players with appropriate verve and humor. The raucous pieces worked best, such as whistle-laden quirkiness of the opening "Gallop" and the whirling, sharply accented "Waitresses." Good, too, was the sly spoof of ballet music in the droopy tippy-toeing of "Paradise" and the quacking trumpets and drunken saxophone in "Waltz." Percussion was an important element in all the selections, ably handled by John Ruggero at the drum set and Ted Gellar, confidently handling up to three instrument at a time, including the eerie sounding flexatone.

The slower selections had a somewhat careful feel, especially those being carried by the violin section, which had some tuning and ensemble troubles. However, the strings in general, particularly the violas and cellos, impressed in their overall cohesiveness and subtle dynamics.

After intermission, Foy led a reduced set of players in Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony, Op. 83a. This is actually an arrangement of the fourth string quartet, written in 1949. The abstract, melancholy melodies reflecting the composer's mood during that period, combined with the various Jewish folk tunes he employed, kept the work from being performed until after Stalin's death in 1953.

The arrangement for strings, winds and percussion was by his associate in later life, Rudolph Barshai. The orchestration seems so right that it's hard to hear the work as a quartet only. The plaintive flute and oboe solos, the typical trumpet and drum combination for a defiant tone, and the boldly jaunty finale with a wide range of percussive effects, all ring true.

Foy again displayed great connection with the music, sensitive to the little changes in pulse and dynamics, signaling to the players the appropriate sweeping line or sudden outburst with clear gestures and confident control. This piece put a bigger burden on the string section, which did not always manage every line cleanly but convinced with its commitment and projection of emotion.

A fellow audience member remarked after the concert, "this is why I love coming to the Raleigh Civic Symphony programs – Foy chooses interesting and unusual repertory and gives the performances such authority." Enough said. May Foy and the RCS entertain and enlighten us for another decade at least.

*The presentation will be made in Fletcher Opera Theater on June 7. See our calendar for details.