Program Notes: Stéphane Conducts Shostakovich (November 6-7, 2021)

Program


Stéphane Denève, conductor Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, violin



James Lee III

Emotive Transformations (2018)


Jean Sibelius

Violin Concerto in D minor (1903)

Allegro moderato

Adagio di molto

Allegro, ma non tanto


Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, violin


Dmitri Shostakovish

Symphony No. 5 in D minor (1937)

Moderato

Allegretto

Largo

Allegro non troppo

Program Notes

By Tim Munro


James Lee, III

Emotive Transformations

James Lee, III

Born 1975, St. Joseph, Michigan


James Lee, III wrote Emotive Transformations after the death of his father. “One does not really understand how others experience grief,” Lee writes, “until they have lost a loved one.”


It was his father who helped light Lee’s artistic fire, signing him up for piano lessons at the age of twelve. Lee grew up surrounded by music at church, and piano became a driving force. Later, composition beckoned. “I realized that I wanted to write piano etudes more than play them.”


Emotive Transformations conveys the stages of grief after the death of a loved one. These stages, Lee says, “include shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance. This work also addresses the emotional transformations that one experiences in life.”


Strings swirl, agitated. Woodwinds sob quietly. A musical heartbeat begins to thump faster. Eventually, the orchestra grinds to a halt, high instruments letting out a scream. Lee calls the conclusion “triumphant, explosive. It is the hope to see a loved one again.”


Lee didn’t write Emotive Transformations as part of a commission. “It was something that I just wanted to write,” he says. Lee had always wanted to write for chamber orchestra, and the smaller band brings a closeness, an intimacy, to the work.


Lee tries to balance conflicting forces in his music: complexity with directness, uncertainty with boldness. “I’m interested in finding the rhythm of our lives,” Lee says.


First performance: February 1, 2020, by the Louisville Orchestra, Roderick Cox conducting

First SLSO performance: This weekend’s concerts

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings

Approximate duration: 11 minutes

Jean Sibelius

Violin Concerto


Jean Sibelius

Born December 8, 1865, Hämeenlinna, Finland

Died September 20, 1957, Ainola, Finland

I. An apparition shimmers. A solo voice steps forward, at first with unease, later with confidence. Images flash before us, some heavy like marshland, some dark and dense as forest.


Jean Sibelius was a poet of northern landscapes. His music, fed by his native Finland, the forest giant, a country of interwoven lakes and frozen tundra. His music, chilled by deep winter nights, lit by the northern sun.


Sibelius wrote the Violin Concerto at difficult time. Tragedy weighed the 39-year-old: the death of his daughter, the struggles of his marriage. He buried himself in alcohol. “My drinking has roots both dangerous and deep,” he wrote at the time.


The concerto was sketched between days-long binges in Helsinki bars. On good days, work prevailed. “He has so many ideas forcing their way in,” wrote his wife, Aino, “that he becomes dizzy. He’s awake night after night.”


II. Winds curl into a musical question mark. In answer, the violin faces uncertainty with compassion, hope.


The violin was Sibelius’ instrument. Earlier, he played professionally and dreamed of becoming a virtuoso. “When I play,” he wrote, “I am filled with a strange feeling—it is as though the insides of the music opened up to me.”


The finished concerto is thrillingly written for the violin, sitting on the edge of playability. At the first performance, the soloist found it beyond him, derailing the performance. Sibelius withdrew the work, rewriting it. We hear this final version at these performances.


Sibelius breathes the rich Romanticism of the violin concertos he knew as a student: Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovksy, Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms. But cool winds blow through this landscape.


III. A dark dance. Quiet hooves on tundra, fiddlers in a town square at midnight. At the end, a storm surge overwhelms. Nature, beautiful and terrifying.


First performance: February 8, 1904, by the Orchestra of Helsinki Philhar­monic Society, the composer conducting, with Victor Nováček as soloist35

First SLSO performance: December 7, 1934, Vladimir Golschmann conducting, with Scipione Guidi as soloist

Most recent SLSO performance: April 24, 2016, Nathalie Stutzmann conducting, with Karen Gomyo as soloist

Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, harp, strings

Approximate duration: 31 minutes



Dmitri Shostakovich

Symphony No. 5


Dmitri Shostakovich

Born September 25, 1906,

Saint Petersburg, Russia

Died August 9, 1975, Moscow, Russia

We cannot know the true thoughts of a Soviet artist in 1936. “People’s minds were numbed by propaganda or fear,” wrote one artist who escaped. “Anyone who did not wish to take part either left this world or went to the Gulag.”


It had been a decade since Shostakovich’s First Symphony announced a major talent. In those years he had produced brilliant, caustic music, most of it tolerated by the government. Now 29, his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, was officially denounced.


Performances and income ran dry. Shostakovich had one option: to get back into the Party’s good graces. To write a work of “heroic classicism”: grand, written in a clear, simple style. Anything else risked poverty or death.


Even by Shostakovich’s speedy standards, the Fifth Symphony came in a flood. The surviving handwritten manuscript seems produced by a trembling, anxious hand. Its first movement was sketched in little more than a week.


The Fifth was premiered as arrests and executions swept the country. It unleashed something raw: listeners wept openly, cheered at the end. It was, according to one listener, “a demonstration of outrage.”


The first movement delivers tragedy and sorrow. The second, echoes of Russian funeral music. The third, elegance rather than mockery. The fourth, deep ambiguity: is this patriotism or defiance? Celebration or mourning?


Officially, the symphony was declared acceptable. An article under Shostakovich’s name gives a government-sanctioned interpretation, calling the work a reply to “justified criticism.” The symphony expresses no “pessimism,” since art “must be suffused with a positive idea.”


But Soviet listeners understood its deeper meanings. Indeed, instru­mental music has unusual power in a totalitarian state. With notes, rhythms, and harmonies as our only guides, the state cannot truly control the message conveyed by wordless music.


One party loyalist wrote in his private diary that “the ending does not sound like a resolution, but rather like a punishment or vengeance on someone. A terrible emotional force, but a tragic force.”


It may be impossible to know Shostakovich’s true thoughts about the Fifth. Equally, it is impossible for anyone—other than you—to control your thoughts, your emotions, as you listen to Shostakovich’s music. Music is made in the ears and minds of each listener.


First performance: November 21, 1937, by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, Yevgeny Mravinsky conducting First SLSO performance: November 29, 1940, Vladimir Golschmann conducting Most recent SLSO performance: February 2, 2014, Jaap van Zweden conducting Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tam tam, triangle, xylophone), 2 harps, piano, celesta, strings Approximate duration: 44 minutes

Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly behaved orange cat.


Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.