Minczuk, CSO deliver affecting interpretation of Shostakovich

Review by John Chacona

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
Minczuk is joined by pianist Jon Nakamatsu for Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto, Op. 16 in A Minor.

What is music about? It’s an ancient and rather silly question, but it comes up every time the music of Dmitri Shostakovich is played — as it was at Saturday’s concert by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra.

Shostakovich had much to say about the meaning of his music, but considering that he said these things as an artist in the Soviet Union, Shostakovich was a classic unreliable narrator. In the end, the music must speak for itself.

That didn’t stop conductor Roberto Minczuk from speaking for the music before conducting Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 before a damp Amphitheater audience and a Public Radio Day audience listening in Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Erie, Pennsylvania.

“When I first conducted this symphony 10 years ago, Soviet times seemed so far gone,” the Brazilian-born Minczuk said. “As we read the paper this morning, this piece becomes more relevant. Are our freedoms being taken from us?” he asked, referring, one assumes, to the citizens of Russia and Ukraine. He seemed to suggest that the limitations placed by the Soviets on artistic freedom were the context of the symphony’s creation, and perhaps its subject.

That said, the music director of the Calgary Symphony Orchestra and one of eight candidates for Chautauqua’s vacant music director position delivered a performance of this great work that eschewed editorializing, hyperbole and outsized emotions.

Minczuk is a protégé of Kurt Masur, and his Shostakovich shared the virtues that his German-born mentor brought to this composer’s music: clarity, organization and a greater degree of objectivity that one can find in the interpretations of Russian conductors. It was also fantastically well played.

The long first movement surveyed its desolate landscape without judgment or outrage, and Minczuk maintained the through-line of this rambling music.

In his introductory remarks, Minczuk called the second movement scherzo, “the most intense four minutes of music you will ever hear.” Intense it was as the CSO winds, which had an outstanding evening, hurtled through the whirlwind passagework at perilous speed. Yet Minczuk maintained iron control.

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
At right, Minczuk is joined by pianist Jon Nakamatsu for Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto, Op. 16 in A Minor.

The slow movement was the most well-adjusted Shostakovich you will ever hear. Minczuk seems unusually alert to matters of rhythm, and he never allowed this music to wander or tip into bathos. Hornist William Caballero’s contributions were flawless.

Then something happened in the finale as the slow introduction from the strings careered into the jaunty little jig for the winds. Some interpret this as a Snoopy-dance of joy at the death of Stalin, shortly before the symphony’s premiere, and Minczuk was light-footed here. But amid the gaiety of the figure took a manic turn, with a mordant, whistling-past-the-graveyard quality. Was it Minczuk, Shostakovich or me?

By the time the composer’s musical monogram, the notes D, E-flat, C, B (D, S, C, H in German notation) rang out in the brass, it — not the Hollywood ending that arrived several minutes later — felt like the real climax of the work.

It was a defiant shout, an “I am here!” declaration asserting the primacy of the artistic and the human, over the impersonal bureaucracy or autocracy.

As such, it was a bit monomaniacal and unhinged, an element of danger that added a frisson of excitement to the well-disciplined music that preceded it. It was the most affecting music-making of the evening.

The Grieg A-minor Piano Concerto that opened the evening shared many of the qualities that Minczuk brought to the Shostakovich. It was a clear-eyed and cleanly played reading that favored American athleticism over Nordic brooding.

Pianist Jon Nakamatsu brought some California sun to this score, with rippling passagework and judicious use of vibrato. In his hands, this well-loved concerto was more thoroughbred than warhorse.

The nearly capacity audience cheered him across the finish line, led by the students of the Piano Program at which Nakamatsu offered master classes this week. His encore, Chopin’s Impromptu in C-Sharp Minor, was rapturously received.

In preparing for this concert, I spent time with recordings of the Shostakovich by Dmitri Mitropoulos and Mstislav Rostropovich. The former, a white-hot account, was recorded in 1954, the year after the symphony’s premiere. Rostropovich was a friend, colleague and confidant of the composer.

I continue to be haunted by these recordings, informed as they are by the freshness of their engagement with the horrors that attended to life and art in the Soviet Union.

Perhaps Minczuk is right. Perhaps Soviet times are far gone despite Vladimir Putin’s perilous mental state and the alarm of the headlines from that part of the world.

What was Saturday evening’s concert about? I don’t pretend to know, but it was an evening of solid music-making by musicians of great professionalism. And that just might be enough.

John Chacona is a freelance writer for the Erie Times-News.

Correction: This review originally mistakenly made note of the contributions of Roger Kaza, Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra principal hornist. William Caballero, principal hornist for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, substituted for Kaza at this performance.

There are 2 comments

  1. Ruth Ann Scanzillo

    Your reviews are informed both by your intuitive sensibilities and your willingness to delve into the context of the music……I always enjoy reading them, as one can never predict what John Chacona will say! Agreed…..the concert was most satisfying, and so was your review.

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