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So, my daughter's youth orchestra gave a stunning performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 last weekend in Symphony Hall, a program which repeats in Carnegie Hall on Monday, December 9. A tip to any NYC readers I may have picked up along the way: DO NOT MISS THIS CONCERT.

That may just seem like proud parental posturing, but believe me, these kids can play and conductor Ben Zander ignites something in them that is very special. His vision of the Shostakovich symphony is uncompromising and there's nothing jaded about the playing. There's also nothing at all compromised about the level of the playing. Daughter of MMmusing is just one among 43 or so violins, so I'm not pretending she's the start of the show, but the level of playing from the winds and brass is really something to hear. I don't know how often one gets to hear an orchestra of this level which also has the luxury of rehearsing as often and as intensely as they do.

Anyway, the Shostakovich has been a longtime favorite of mine (and of countless others, of course) for well more than two decades. I could say tons about it, but will simply share a few observations for now.

  • My first memory of the piece comes from when my older sister was home for Christmas break and received a birthday card from a sort of intellectual hipster type she had some interest in. In his letter he wrote something along the lines of "my gift to you is the third movement of Shostakovich's fifth symphony." I'm not sure I'd even heard of the piece or composer at that point, but this seemed to me the most impossibly romantic gesture imaginable and it set the bar high for my expectations about what this music must be like. (It's not clear to me if the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra cleared performance rights with my sister.)
  • A few years later, as a college freshman, I had the amazing opportunity to join the cello section of the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra at the exact time that a brilliant Russian conductor had just escaped (with Viktoria Mullova!) from the Soviet Union and become music director of this little orchestra that could. For the first concert, we performed Shostakovich 5 and even got a review in The New York Times. (The reviewer is right on about the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time string section. Like Groucho Mark, I look with suspicion on any orchestra that would have me as a cello-playing member.) Vakhtang Jordania was a protege of none other than the legendary Yevgeny Mravinsky, who premiered the symphony in 1937, so this put me in a pretty cool line of Shostakovich descendents. The truth is I remember very little of the musical specifics of that occasion, but it was still an unforgettable experience, even if I was also terrified!
  • Since that time, I've certainly listened to recordings of the symphony off and on, but it was more part of my past than present when I first sat in on one of this fall's rehearsals. In that moment, I had one of those marvelous flashback moments which sometimes seem to me the best kinds of moments music has to offer. The orchestra was in the middle of that 3rd movement (which now belongs to my older sister) and the orchestra had just descended from a huge climax and as the violins were scuttling around, I had a strong sense of deja vu - I knew something special was about to happen and, seconds before it started, I remembered this heartrending oboe solo was about to enter. As I listened, I remembered both that our Chattanooga oboist had played this solo perfectly (he got a nice citation in the Times review cited above) and I also slowly started to remember that this oboe melody was going to be returning later in...wait for it...the cello section! That's right, the cellos are the ones who take the lovely tune and realize its full potential.
The oboe melody makes its first appearance just after the 26:00 mark in the video below: