The genius of Dmitri Shostakovich is being celebrated by the National Symphony Orchestra this week in honor of the late composer's 75th birthday, which falls on Friday. Last night's concert proved worthy of the occasion.
A powerful bust of Shostakovich, its base covered with flowers, dominated the entrance to the Concert Hall. The work of the Russian sculptor, Neizwestny, it was a gift of Mstislav Rostropovich to this country five years ago. Inside the hall, Rostropovich offered another gift with his playing of Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto, written for him in 1959.
The conductor of last night's concert, which is being repeated tonight, tomorrow night and Friday, was Maxim Shostakovich, the composer's son. The entire evening demonstrated the power of the gene, for Maxim, like his father, is an expert pianist, and his son, named Dmitri for his famous grandfather, was the soloist in the Second Piano Concerto, music written for Maxim.
As a conductor, Maxim Shostakovich is concise but graceful, a man who illuminates the music at hand with gestures which do not hesitate to dramatize the largest passages. In the Sixth Symphony, the violas and cellos produced a noble sound in the lofty opening phrases. The first movement is one of many memorable largo movements that enrich the Shostakovich symphonic literature. Its long line moved with mounting strength in an inevitable progression.
The two succeeding rapid movements were filled with thunder and wit. The second of these, the closing presto, is a marvel of bold, sardonic celebration at lightning speed. The musicians of the orchestra deserve high praise for their performance throughout the evening, despite brief moments when the horns and trumpets showed the strain of the heavy demands placed on them.
At the conclusion of the symphony it was clear that the audience's shouts of approval were for both composer and conductor.
The piano concerto is a lighthearted affair, its outer movements marked by nonstop exuberance. The slow movement, however, is one long exquisite melodic line which young Dmitri, who had the whole work beautifully in hand, played with mature insight. The audience would not let him go at the end of the concerto until he played one of his grandfather's brief preludes for an encore. It was a touching moment to see the conductor/father embrace his pianist/son, and well he might.
Inspired by Rostropovich's virtuosity, the Cello Concerto is a towering affair. It includes both folk song and some of the composer's most original writing. The colors of the muted wind choir at the opening, in dialogue with the cello's aggressive declarations, are superb. The slow movement, with the horn -- wonderfully played -- and the soloist over soft violas and cellos, is a stroke of genius. Rostropovich and the conductor worked hand-in-glove through the most intricate passages. The cadenza brought out the cellist's mightiest accomplishments. Few can manage it at all.