(Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot)

The question about Shostakovich that everyone asks, including R.H. Thomson who introduced this evening, is—“Did he sell out to the Communist Party (that twice suppressed his music) as the price of staying at the top of the Soviet musical heap?”


The multimedia portrait that Andrew Burashko directs surely gets it right. Burashko takes a pass on the ‘did he or didn’t he?’ hype of political conjecture, and gets down to emotional truth in the music. Shostakovich  always stayed alive by laughing to keep from crying. In other words, Shostakovich had the blues.


Although Shostakovich rose to be top musical dog under Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, his music was always about staying alive through hard times. This night we enjoyed Shostakovich’s 2nd Piano Trio (1944), dedicated to the memory of his recently deceased best friend and champion, Ivan Sollertinsky. To help himself get through the loss of his friend, Shostakovich built the final movement of his Trio out of Jewish Klezmer music.

We also enjoyed Shostakovich’s 8th String Quartet (1960) which contains a record of his feelings about the fiery holocaust the Allies brought down on the German city of Dresden as payback for the Nazi holocaust. The second movement reprises the Jewish themes Shostakovich first introduced in the 2nd Piano Trio. In both compositions, in order to stay alive by joining his personal misery with humanity’s misery and making them both dance in his music, Shostakovich identifies with the musical language of the seriously oppressed in his culture: like Gershwin went to the Blues, Shostakovich went to the Jews.


The opening fugue of the 8th String Quartet, based on the composer’s four-note signature, is disorderly, dissonant, emotionally searing. It is followed by three lyrical sections, each sustained and disturbed by a static, obsessive drone. The second movement scherzo offers the loud, brutal hammering of quarter notes and sforzando chords over the obsessive ostinati of Shostakovich’s four-note signature. These figures collide with the hurtling broken chords of the ‘freygish’ Jewish theme quoted from the 2nd Piano Trio that are cut short as the demonic waltz of the third movement begins to cut its brutal, sardonic figures, making a mockery of suffering and compassion alike, morphing into a muted, keening cloud of high notes that hangs like a plague over the end of the movement.


A single high note on the Stephen Sitarski’s first violin carries over into the fourth movement like the whine of high flying aircraft loaded with bombs that will explode in three-note bursts until the section where the music imitates a chorus singing a Russian folksong whose title translates as “ Tormented by Harsh Captivity.” The fifth and final movement is a slow fugue that completes the Shostakovich signature introduced at the start of the first movement and eventually the evening’s tension fades into a quiet resolution. The magic of the music is that this grotesquerie always skirts the verges of humour.


One might well ask, at this point, why the audience last night, oneself included, was exalted by the performance of what has become known worldwide as Shostakovich’s most popular quartet? Without hesitation I answer it is because the music is so obviously honest that it demands to be heard, and because the players gave everything they had to it. Stephen Sitarski and Ben Bowman on violins, Stephen Dann on viola, and Rachel Mercer on cello are simply the best in the business: they served it up raw, down in the nasty, and so sweet, as Shostakovich wrote it, and they made it come alive for us.


Andrew Burashko joined his piano to the strings of Bowman, Dann and Mercer for a rendition of the 2nd Piano Trio that was compelling in its naked portrayal of grief, violence, and sad beauty. Andrea Nann went after similar qualities in her sombre, solo dance that shared the stage with the Trio and a video/live-image mix by Peter Mettler.


The program wisely placed a chamber ensemble of thirteen stellar musicians performing Shostakovich’s first Jazz Suite between the two ‘serious’ works, highlighting the humour and virtuosity present in much of the composer’s work.  All the magic of music-making popped up in one cabaret moment of the “Foxtrot” when Don Rooke’s steel guitar sang Hawaiian tones and the heads of the other musicians on the stage turned towards him and grinned as if they had never heard anything so irresistible before. That’s it.


R.H. Thomson–Introduction, Peter Mettler–Film, Andrea Nann–Dance, Andrew Burashko–Piano, Andy Ballantyne–Sax, Benjamin Bowman–Violin, James Brown–Guitar, Steven Dann–Viola, Robin Engelman–Conductor, John Johnson–Sax, Al Kay–Trombone, Anita McAlister–Trumpet, Rachel Mercer–Cello, Paul Otway–Trumpet, Joe Phillip–Bass, Rob Piltch–Guitar, Don Rooke–Steel Guitar, Ryan Scott–Percussion, Stephen Sitarski–Violin, Perry White–Sax


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