Say what you will about the Second and Third, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth; for me, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9 is the composer's most willfully peculiar public statement. Never mind the superstitious weight of matching Beethoven's magickal terminus; this was supposed to be a triumphal celebration. The Good Guys won. Instead, Shostakovich turns in a lithe, genial and even sardonic little neoclassical essay. What could he have been thinking? What did he think the officials and censors were going to make of it?
Extramusical considerations aside, the Ninth is one of Shostakovich's most playful scores, and Valery Gergiev conducted his Kirov Orchestra in a suitably buoyant rendition. Solo winds and brasses played with distinction; the strings were agile, never heavy. The solo bassoonist who handled the fourth movement elegy earned more than one lusty ovation for his efforts.
Given the treacherous circumstances under which it was created, I've always felt just a little bit churlish that Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7, "Leningrad," is one of my least favorite of his works in the genre. Were it constructed as tautly as the Ninth (or the First, or the Fifth), I might have a different opinion; as it is, many moments are remarkably beautiful and/or powerful, but the whole has always struck me as too little basic material extended over too great an expanse. That said, a performance as committed as the one Gergiev and his players delivered tonight makes the piece easier to endure and even enjoy. (Judging by the thunderous applause that erupted at the symphony's conclusion, I'm clearly in the minority here. Heck, even Anna Netrebko lept from her seat and rushed to the stage front to offer her applause)
Flapping both arms at either side like a massive bird of prey, Gergiev summoned a titanic opening. His arrangement of the orchestra onstage -- violins to his left with basses behind them, opposite celli and violas -- distributed the sonic heft effectively in string tuttis. Small details were telling, such as a piccolo player whose solo effected the breathy tone of a child's toy, and an imperturbable snare drummer whose rock-steady march rhythm was accomplished with a striking economy of motion. And after the Jerusalem Symphony's underpowered batterie last night, it was a thrill to see cymbal and tambourine players with real technique and power, not to mention a timpanist unafraid of playing with arms fully extended, so as to bring the noise at the climax of the march.
Oboe and clarinet soloists played with equal distinction in the second movement, which also contains one of the symphony's most distinctive passages: the stretch in which solo bass clarinet is backed by percussive flutes and clockwork harp. An ardently passionate third movement closed with rays of sunlight fighting through dark clouds; the finale's understated triumphalism underscored the human toll of victory, including a radiant string elegy at its center and the most bittersweet C-major conclusion in the repertoire.
Despite any misgivings about the "Leningrad," I question neither the musicians' commitment nor the distinction with which they discharged their duties. Another triumph, then; meanwhile, April's Rotterdam Philharmonic concerts can't arrive too soon.
Walking down from Lincoln Center to Carnegie Hall in order to grab the N train home, I noticed the crimson lighting that suffused Jazz at Lincoln Center's Allen Room, fairly gushing from the massive windows overlooking Columbus Circle. The mystery of this garish illumination was dispelled when I spotted the blood-red neon "V" suspended on the room's back wall -- the same one that appears in the ubiquitous posters for the new film adaptation of V for Vendetta sniped all over town these past few weeks. Some sort of private corporate party rental, I presume.
I've been on the fence for a while about whether I should see this film, given that V creator Alan Moore, a comics writer whose work had a gigantic impact on me in college, has taken such pains to distance himself from it. (Dave Itzkoff's article in Sunday's New York Times did a great job of summarizing Moore's grievances, in the process providing a neat little overview of his career and a deft sketch of his personality.) On the other hand, I'm kind of a sucker for Natalie Portman (even as a gangsta rapper), and who am I to resist when no less a personality than James Wolcott declares the film to be "the most subversive cinematic deed of the Bush-Blair era, a dagger poised in midair." (For anyone stradding the fence I've been occupying, Wolcott's essay is recommended reading.) And on the other other hand, one of my TONY colleagues, who has also seen the film, assumes a countenance of dread anytime its title is mentioned; then again, this is the same colleague who named School of Rock one of his top ten picks for 2003. (Sorry, dude.) Ultimately, Portman and Wolcott win; I'll be catching V for Vendetta sometime this weekend.
Finally, catching up on blogs I missed during last week's illness, I see -- thanks to valiant Darcy James Argue -- that Ethan Iverson posted his June 2005 Down Beat article on the brilliant multi-instrumentalist and composer Django Bates on the Bad Plus blog, Do the Math, late last week. Do go read, because Ethan does an excellent job of describing the fabulously inexplicable music of Bates, a prizewinning British polymath now based in Copenhagen. I first became aware of Bates during his tenure in prog-rock giant/would-be jazzer Bill Bruford's first Earthworks lineup in the late '80s, and have been an ardent admirer ever since. I had the pleasure of catching Bates's fab small combo, Human Chain, at the Knitting Factory some years ago, and actually met him the day I helped saxophonist Tim Berne move from one Brooklyn apartment to another. Heavily jetlagged, Bates didn't do a lot of heavy lifting that day, but it was cool to sit near him in a musty van, anyway.
Bates's great trio of '90s discs on the JMT label is available once more on Winter & Winter, the Earthworks sessions have been remastered and reissued on Bruford's Summerfold label, and if you're very lucky, you might still be able to track down the stellar Quiet Nights, a Human Chain session with vocalist Josephine Crønholm that often sounds rather like a Venusian lounge act fronted by a Björk-influenced chanteuse, especially during their take on "Teach Me Tonight." (I'm even crazier about the dizzyingly perverse mix of slurpy psychedelia and spastic breakbeat Bates applies to "Like Someone in Love.") Happily put on notice, I've just now ordered a copy of Bates's latest disc, You Live and Learn...(apparently), issued on his own Lost Marble imprint.
Richard Wagner - Das Rheingold - Wolfgang Probst, Michaela Schuster, Esa Ruuttunen, Eberhard Francesco Lorenz, Robert Künzli, Staatsoper Stuttgart and Staatsorchester Stuttgart / Lothar Zagrosek (Naxos)
Bill Bruford's Earthworks - Earthworks (Summerfold)
Django Bates - Summer Fruits (and Unrest) (JMT)
Django Bates - Quiet Nights (Screwgun)