By Lawrence Budmen

Dimitri Shostakovich was one of the most distinctive creative voices of the 20th century. Deeply influenced by the apocalyptic romanticism of Gustav Mahler, Shostakovich was also on the cutting edge of musical modernism, employing such divergent techniques as atonality, dissonance, polyrhythms, and aleatoric (or chance) writing Under the totalitarian regime of Joseph Stalin, the composer was often forced to choose between fiercely original musical impulses and loyalty to official state cultural orthodoxy.

Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony celebrated the contradictions of Shostakovich’s symphonic oeuvre on Saturday with an unforgettable program at the Carnival Center’s Knight Concert Hall 

The scenario of the composer’s 1930 ballet The Golden Age concerns a victorious Soviet football team in a championship game with a home squad in a greedy capitalist nation. Three excerpts from that satirical score really sizzled in Tilson Thomas’ whip cracking performance. The Polka movement is one of the most ingenuous pieces ever written – a melody that sounds backwards. A sinuous xylophone seemed to glide on mallets of airborne lightness.

Like all of Shostakovich’s later works, the Cello Concerto No2 in G Major is darkly pessimistic in tone. The composer’s internal agony emerges in rotund layers of molten lava from the solo instrument’s lower register. 

Written for Mistislav Rostropovich on the occasion of the composer’s 60th birthday, the concerto was rendered with peerless artistry by Yo-Yo Ma. While Rostropovich approached the piece with hard edged, head long thrust, Ma offered a more restrained approach, marked by subtly nuanced musicality. From the softly ephemeral opening to the uncontrolled wildness of the finale, Ma offered an ever more intense crescendo of feverish emotional overdrive. The auburn glow of dusky tonal colors in unexpected lyrical surges was the hallmark of a one of a kind artist. Ma’s cello turned dervish in the unhinged Russian dance of the Allegretto, interrupted by frightening percussion smacks. Tilson Thomas’ understated command of Shostakovich’ s densely textured orchestral writing was striking. 

As an encore Ma played a transcription of the Andante cantabile from Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No.1 with aristocratic nobility, turning the familiar salon melody into freshly minted gold. 

Although the composer claimed that the Symphony No.5 in D Minor was “a Soviet artist’s creative reply to just criticism,” the score’ s irony, sarcasm, and relentless percussive volleys suggest a different response to Soviet censors. 

Tilson Thomas seems to share Rostropovich’s belief that Shostakovich’s dynamic markings should be realized in extremes of soft and loud. The ultra intense opening (with emphatic accents like drumbeats) gave way to austere strings weaving through an overlay of distinct voicings. A silver toned flute solo seemed to come from some far off region. 

The heart and soul of this symphony is the bleak Largo. From the initial string murmurs to the clanging climax and catharsis, Tilson Thomas captured the movement’s agony and ecstasy with power and fervor. The New World’s richly sonorous strings would have done a Russian orchestra proud. 

Tilson Thomas brought the ensemble to a near frenzied pitch in the martial Allegro finale, slowing down only for the final triumphant chords. The entire performance offered a bracing, revisionist 21st century view of a familiar masterwork. 

Copyright Sun-Sentinel


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