Performance Friday, March 9, 2012 | 7:30 PM

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
The Boston Symphony Orchestra closes out its three-night stay at Carnegie Hall with the tuneful populism of Shostakovich’s best-known symphony. Premiered in 1937, the Fifth put the composer back in the good graces of Stalin and the Communist government, which had banned his notorious opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk the previous year and had always viewed Shostakovich as something of a troublemaker.
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The Program

Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) Suite


As an adult, Ravel could and did penetrate the world of childhood as few composers before or since. It may be that this empathy came through a shared passion for toys—especially the mechanical kind—or simply because Ravel, always painfully sensitive about his small stature, felt more comfortable with persons smaller than himself. His empathy for a child’s point of view is especially apparent in his masterly and charming opera L’enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Magic Spells), which deals with the experience of a naughty child whose long-mistreated toys come to life to teach him a lesson. His sensitivity is also revealed in his response to a series of illustrations of French fairy tales that he used as the basis for the suite of charming four-hand piano pieces called Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) designed as a gift for Mimi and Jean Godebski, the children of his friends Ida and Cipa Godebski.

The most famous writer of fairy tales in France was Charles Perrault (1628–1703), who was responsible for adapting many folk tales to the taste of the aristocrats in the court of Louis XIV. It was Perrault’s 1697 book Histoires ou contes du temps passé avec des moralitez (Stories or Tales of the Olden Times, with Morals) that became known popularly in France as Mother Goose. Yet Perrault provided only two of the tales for Ravel’s suite and ballet—“The Sleeping Beauty” and “Hop o’ My Thumb.” The Countess d’Aulnoy, a contemporary imitator of Perrault, was the source for “Laideronette (The Ugly Little Girl), Empress of the Pagodas”; and the familiar tale of “Beauty and the Beast” came from a later book, Magasin des enfants, contes moraux (Children’s Treasury of Moral Tales), published by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1757.

“Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty” is a graceful dance, exceedingly brief and almost totally diatonic (which is surprising, considering Ravel’s reputation for chromaticism). “Tom Thumb” finds the main character lost in the forest and casting out breadcrumbs to leave a trail for himself, only to find that the birds have eaten them all up. This movement is filled with marvels of ingenious invention: the melody representing poor Tom proceeding from 2/4 to 3/4 to 4/4 to 5/4 in meter, as he gets progressively more bewildered and lost; the scattering of crumbs in an unending sequence of thirds from the violins; and the chirping of the birds that eat them up in a series of complicated violin harmonics. “Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas” indulges in a bit of orientalism, with repetitive figures in the percussion lending a genuinely eastern air. In “Conversations of Beauty and the Beast,” Beauty has a graceful waltz, to which the Beast contributes some inevitable growling. “The Fairy Garden” concludes the suite with the same kind of quiet and utter simplicity as characterized the opening.

—Steven Ledbetter

© Boston Symphony Orchestra, Inc. All rights reserved.

Concerto for Piano and Winds

By the time of his Concerto for Piano and Winds (1923–1924), Stravinsky’s Neoclassical style had taken such hold of his musical philosophy that he no longer considered himself a composer of his own time. In 1925, during a concert tour in the United States, he told an interviewer:

I have gone back in the centuries and have begun over again, on a historic foundation. What I write today has its roots in the style and methods of Palestrina and Bach. Today, I am not to be taken as a harmonist; I have become, through and through, a contrapuntist.

This is a very telling statement and one that gives the listener valuable advice about how to approach this concerto, which can, at times, sound like the deranged grandchild of a Bach keyboard concerto or a Couperin harpsichord piece. Viewing it in that context allows one to see the character and humor contained in the music.

The opening, with its stately tempo and dotted rhythms, evokes the Baroque French overture; however, the minor mode, the stark sonority caused by the lack of strings (except for double basses), and the sharp dissonances in the brass make the music feel like a skeletal, teetering parody of the traditional form. The opening phrase also nearly matches, in rhythm and harmony, the first phrase of Chopin’s famous funeral march from his Piano Sonata No. 2; the rhythmic similarity continues through the end of the second phrase. After this gloomy prelude, the first movement surges into an Allegro, which swiftly moves through sparsely accompanied counterpoint for the piano, full of unusual accents, syncopations, and meter changes. The movement ends with a brief return to the opening Largo theme, this time supported by pounding triplets in the piano’s low register.

The second movement is based on a theme resembling the one that opened the piece, but without the dotted rhythm, and supported by comparatively lush harmonies and orchestration. It is interrupted by two cadenzas for the pianist, but otherwise continues wistfully on until its collision with the outburst that begins the final movement. In the third, toccata-like movement, the juxtaposition of implacably plodding chords in the orchestra against scurrying 16th-notes in the piano gives the impression of prey fleeing predator, and the final, conclusive return to the funereal opening theme doesn’t suggest a happy ending.

This concerto is a highly original piece—even by the standards of one of the most innovative composers in all of music history—and Stravinsky seemed to be quite proud of it. He conceived it as a vehicle for his own performance as soloist and played it very frequently during the decade following its composition—a time when he made much of his living through performance. Even more than his Baroque pastiche ballet Pulcinella, the Concerto for Piano and Winds demonstrates what Stravinsky made possible through the combination of tradition and new ideas.

—Jay Goodwin

© Boston Symphony Orchestra, Inc. All rights reserved.

Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47

The most often performed of Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies, his Symphony No. 5 has served as an evocative canvas upon which countless commentators have projected sharply divergent political ideologies, personal jealousies, hopes, terrors, and fantasies. Completed during one of the most terrifying and uncertain periods in Soviet history—when dictator Joseph Stalin was supervising the arrest, imprisonment, and often execution of thousands of prominent figures in political and cultural life—the Fifth Symphony literally saved Shostakovich’s neck. Its very public triumph also established him as the leading Soviet composer, a position he would occupy—with numerous hair-raising ups and downs—until his death in 1975.

Given the enormous cultural and political significance of the Fifth Symphony, its relatively conservative and “classical” personality is ironic and strange. In most of his earlier music, the proudly avant-garde Shostakovich had been gleefully “pushing the envelope.” But just as he was finishing his Symphony No. 4, his existence was turned upside down by the publication on January 28, 1936, in the official Communist Party newspaper Pravda, of a scathing attack (“Muddle Instead of Music”) on his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. First performed in 1934, this had been a huge hit with Soviet audiences in Leningrad and Moscow, and had already been staged abroad. But Stalin and his cultural “advisers” belatedly decided that the opera’s overt sexuality, raw language, slapstick irreverence, and frequently dissonant musical style were inappropriate for the Soviet audience. Lady Macbeth was immediately banned from Soviet theaters, and Shostakovich’s future suddenly looked terribly uncertain. When he started work on the Fifth in April 1937, Shostakovich was all too aware how much was on the line; yet he abhorred the thought of cheapening his talent and integrity by creating music that pandered to the Party’s demands.

The harmonic style and formal structure of the Fifth Symphony are newly “accessible” in certain ways. The Fifth adheres relatively closely to Classical symphonic form, built on a base of diatonic tonal harmony, with a first movement using relatively straightforward sonata form, followed by a short scherzo-like movement, a long slow movement, and a finale of decisive character.

In the first movement, Shostakovich uses the epic motto theme as an organizing principle, returning to it in its original and altered forms. In sharp contrast are two more lyrical themes, the first wandering somewhat uncertainly and trailing off into nervous stepwise movement, the second remarkably serene, contemplative, and free of conflict. The short second movement shows us the sarcastic, ironic side of Shostakovich already familiar from the First Symphony and Piano Concerto No. 1. But the symphony’s prevailing mood is serious and reflective, as the length and almost unbearable emotional intensity of the Largo, with its expressionistic writing for strings, make clear.

Writing music to follow such an exquisite confession of grief and suffering is not easy, and the finale has always been the most controversial movement. Outwardly, the spirit of celebration and optimism can seem forced and superficial, but Shostakovich included a hidden subversive message underneath all those blaring trumpets and rattling drums. It is a musical quotation from the setting of a poem (“Rebirth”) by Alexander Pushkin that he had composed a few months earlier, one of the Four Pushkin Romances, Op. 46. The initial march theme takes its contour from the four notes setting the first three words of the poem, dealing with one of Pushkin’s favorite themes: the struggle between genius and mediocrity in art. Here, the struggle ends with the artist triumphant over his persecutors. At the time, these romances were unpublished and unknown, so the reference was intended for Shostakovich alone—and, perhaps, for future generations.

The public reaction to the star-studded premiere of the Fifth Symphony in Leningrad on November 21, 1937, was ecstatic, and has gone down as one of the most important events in the history of Soviet culture. The concert also marked the beginning of a long and fruitful association between Shostakovich and the young conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky. With the Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich resurrected his personal and musical fortunes, narrowly escaping the catastrophe that would strike down numerous artistic friends and colleagues at the end of the 1930s. But it was hardly the last time that he would feel like a hunted man.

—Harlow Robinson

© Boston Symphony Orchestra, Inc. All rights reserved.

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The Trustees of Carnegie Hall gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Linda and Earle S. Altman in support of the 2011-2012 season.

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