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New works celebrate Shostakovich’s birthday

The Shostakovich Project with Yegor Dyachkov, November 19, 2006

The Vancouver Sun

by Lloyd Dykk

For a large part of his life Dmitri Shostakovich walked an extremely thin line with Joseph Stalin and his apparatchik goons, writing music that just barely fell within the party lines of cheerfully stupid socialist realism while actually deploring what it had done, and also deploring the state of Russia even before Stalin’s arrival.

One of his repeated devices of protest was the flagrant signature of his name in the form of DSCH (d, e-flat, c and b), which is German musical notation and stands for “Dmitri Shostakovich.” These four notes, which are a motif in more than a few of his works, make up a jaunty-sounding “up yours” germ of melody which the party officials were either too thick to take note of, or more likely too busy with their own affairs, such as declaring people like Shostakovich “enemies of the people,” to notice.

The musical notes are like samizdat-art rebellion, using covert sarcasm to make a point. Sarcasm well lay within Shostakovich’s strengths and signing his name to outrage was a bravely individual move that could easily have meant his own death. It makes you want to reread his shockingly depressing memoir, Testimony, which he dictated to Solomon Volkov and was once angrily refuted by Shostakovich’s relatives during the last days of the Iron Curtain, though it has always had the texture of truth. Who could make such stuff up?

You could probably call The Shostakovich Project, Sunday at the Chan Centre, a post-structuralist exercise: The CBC Radio Orchestra’s commissioning each of 10 Canadian composers to write a three-minute work based on DSCH as a tribute to Shostakovich on the 100th year since his birth. We heard just six of them, arranged into two suites (this was a co-project with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra and a side line in a concert that featured cellist Yegor Dyachkov).


The compositions were by Andrew Creeggan, Robert Lepage, Douglas Schmidt, Jocelyn Morlock, John Korsrud and Michael Oesterle. These seemed like worthy exercises. You wouldn’t call them trivial but why only three minutes? It seemed more like a party trick (sorry for the word). At best they served as entertainments leading up to the main event, which was music actually written by Shostakovich, though I especially liked Lepage’s Nino Rota-like waltz, Morlock’s intense Disquiet and Oesterle’s dense Compression.

Not that Shostakovich wasn’t capable of writing trivial music himself – rather, he was often forced to. Make him write film music, that’ll break him, thought the cultural officers, wrongly. This included an assignment to write incidental music for the 1932-staged Hamlet, a ridiculous-sounding production that did away with the ghost (guess why).

Shakespeare was among Stalin’s special hatreds. This isn’t important music but it’s witty and likable. If it’s like a footnote to his career, this is important in itself, and the orchestra didn’t stint on expression, proving again what a fine conductor Alain Trudel is.

One thing the three-minute commissions did very well was lay that DSCH cell in your ear. The First Cello Concerto is rife with it as well as a mournful parody of Stalin’s favorite sentimental folk song, and it sprang to life with the preparation it had been given. Inspired by a similar work by Prokofiev and written for Mstislav Rostropovich, it’s the better of his two concertos for cello, just as his first of paired concertos for other instruments are also the better ones. ;

Montreal cellist Dyachkov was the soloist who gave us an intense, beautiful performance, with a solo cadenza that was a gripping, more than speech-like soliloquy. It rang from his strings and the orchestra’s response was heartfelt and deft with an especially spirited reaction in the important horn and percussion parts. The players caught it all. A cello concerto is one of the most vocal forms there is, and Shostakovich’s is eloquent with bitter sarcasm and longing, the bifurcations of a fractured soul.

Tue Nov 21, 2006