Originally published on March 15, 2009 and reproduced with minor revisions
Conductor James Conlon clearly has a great love for Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1932 opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Confronted with the paucity of opportunities to conduct the opera itself, he compiled an orchestral suite in 1989, which he first performed with the National Symphony. This week he brought the suite to the San Francisco Symphony, preceding the performance with an explanation of the opera’s narrative, along with musical excerpts from the suite to give us a clear sense of how that narrative progressed. My only misgiving was Conlon’s tendency to play up the “tragedy” of the opera in his remarks.
I am old-fashioned enough to continue to hold to the precept in Aristotle’s “Poetics” that tragedy is concerned with noble men, while comedy “is an imitation of baser men.” We see Alexander Pushkin honoring this principle in the full title of his play, A Dramatic Tale, The Comedy of the Distress of the Muscovite State, of Tsar Boris, and of Grishka Otrepyev. There was little ennobling about the Russians in Pushkin’s play, and the novel by Nikolai Leskov in which Shostakovich based his opera is no different. James Keller’s notes in the program book described it as “a grim and lurid tale;” and Shostakovich had no trouble capturing this spirit in his music. Every character in this opera is either a brute or a weakling. The weaklings do not last very long, and the brutes destroy each other. Shostakovich described the setting as “a gloomy satiric character;” and his music cuts right to the core of that character.
If a common literary tool of satire is hyperbole, then Shostakovich’s use of orchestral resources is about as hyperbolic as you can get. With only a few brief lyric interludes, Conlon’s suite captures this spirit by starting loud and getting progressively louder. The brutes always triumph in Shostakovich’s musical language, whether it is in the explicit depiction of sexual congress (thus going far beyond the over-the-top orchestral introduction to Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier), the acts of murder, or the thuggish law enforcement (complete with a musical apotheosis of The Informer). This was not an experience for those who go to concerts for “character improvement;” but it was an excellent opportunity to experience a master composer taking on a veritable catalogue of the baser instincts of mankind.
Such excess was typical of the Romantic movement in Europe; but that movement never really “took” in Russia. Leskov took “an orientation toward the practical,” as Walter Benjamin put it in “The Storyteller;” and that orientation is also evident in Shostakovich’s no-holds-barred rhetoric. Shostakovich’s approach to music may thus be seen as a reaction against the musical Romanticism of the nineteenth century, and that position was emphasized through Conlon’s decision to precede his suite with the music of Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt. Berlioz’ “Corsaire” overture (earlier inspired by James Fennimore Cooper’s sea story, “The Red Rover”) took its title from Lord Byron. In the program notes Michael Steinberg quoted Donald Francis Tovey describing Byron’s Corsair as being “of course, Byron himself, mythically wicked, sinister, and diabolically noble,” the diametric opposite of Leskov’s brutes. Like the later Shostakovich, Berlioz could also command the full force of an orchestra (and did in this overture); but he could make that force roil with textures so intricate that they elude most recording processes and can only really be enjoyed in the concert hall. Conlon had a perfect command of both sides of Berlioz’ coin, so to speak; and the orchestra was only too willing to give him what he wanted, whether it involved subtlety or force.
That same combination was evident in Liszt’s second piano concerto in A major. This is one of the few Liszt composition that begins with a “calm before the storm;” and even the storm itself breaks every now and then to allow the piano to engage with solo voices in the violin and cello sections. In this concerto we hear Liszt’s attention to detail extend beyond his usual reputation for high-density embellishment; and in the performance Conlon made an excellent match for pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. As was the case with the Berlioz overture, we are in the world of diabolic nobility, rather than post-Romantic brutality.
The overall result was fascinating. Conlon took the nineteenth-century traditions and placed them in the non-traditional frame of post-Romantic realism. Each composition provided its own opportunities for reflection, but the reflection could only really begin after all three of the works on the program had said their piece.