Shostakovich, Britten and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra – Twin Cities Arts Reader
The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in 2015. Photo by Ash & James Photography.
How long does it take to learn a cello concerto? If you were Mstislav Rostropovich, the Soviet cellist for whom Dmitri Shostakovich composed his Cello Concerto No. 1, the answer is “4 days, memorization included.” Even at just under half an hour, its moving and contrasting four movements make it a particularly impressive feat.
For the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, which presents Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 on May 6 and 7, this half-hour duration means that a partner piece is needed to make a full concert. In this case, it’s Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge – a piece that also came together at high speed, with its first sketches completed in 10 days. these Variants catapulted Britten in 1937 from a locally known composer of instrumental pieces and low-budget artistic film scores to an international rising star.
britten wrote Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge as a commissioned work for the 1937 Salzburg Festival, which had its beginnings in 1920 to promote international cooperation through music and theatre. (Today, the festival is one of the most prestigious musical theater festivals in the world; Trapp family singers music sound fame also sang there in 1936.) As part of its post-World War I mandate, the festival practiced deliberate inclusion, its 1937 organizers inviting British surgeon-turned-bandleader Boyd Neel to bring his orchestra alumni of the London Conservatory. One of the terms of Neel’s contract was that he would give the world premiere of a new work by a British composer.
Neel was not a man who took the “traditional” route. After all, he had decided to study orchestration and conducting while pursuing a busy surgical practice. So Neel’s normal schedule literally included going back and forth between conducting gigs and delivering babies in the hospital, with time set aside for a good chunk of recording the film’s music. Nevertheless, his orchestra gave many regional premieres of works by continental composers, as well as the very first recording of the simple symphony by Benjamin Britain – a man then in his early twenties. A second engagement brought them together in 1936, when Neel conducted the music for Britten’s film for The love of a strangeran adaptation by Agatha Christie starring Ann Harding and Basil Rathbone.
After receiving his contract for the Salzburg Festival, Neel decides to approach Benjamin Britten: would he like to compose a piece for a prestigious international festival. Britten quickly agreed, deciding to pay homage to his own composition teacher Frank Bridge, adapting some of the latter’s music as the core of what was to become a 27-minute theme and variations for orchestra. Its 10 variations explore a theme from Bridge’s Three idylls for string quartet (1906).
While Britten came of age as a musician in the decade before World War II, the other composer on next weekend’s program nearly lost his career during that time. Dmitri Shostakovich first entered the Petrograd Conservatory in the early years of the Russian Revolution; by the time he graduated, his works were being performed in the rapidly changing environment of Soviet arts politicization and censorship. Shostakivch’s First Symphony (1919) imitated Stravinsky and Prokofiev, the premiere of which was acclaimed. His Second Symphony, premiered in 1929, continued this line of modernity, while incorporating a grand choral finale praising the Bolshevik Revolution. However, the combination did not sit well with critics, including scathing reviews from the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians.
Shostakovich’s hot-cold reception would be the hallmark of much of his career. On January 17, 1936, Joseph Stalin made a rare excursion to the current Mikhailovsky Theater in St. Petersburg, to see the opera. His hosts praised Shostakovich’s work, encouraging the dictator to return the following week to see the premiere of Shostakovich’s new opera. Lady Macbeth of Mzensk. Stalin did – but was so put off by the opera that he and his entourage left without a word. The next day, the official journal Pravda published a devastating review of the composer’s music, leading to a ban on performance of the opera for 25 years. (Today it is the fourth most produced Russian-language opera and regularly in the top 75 most produced operas in the world.)
Shostakovich’s break, so to speak, came after Stalin’s death in 1953. Over the next decade he composed many of his most popular works, including the Tenth Symphony; the New York Philharmonic performed its Fifth Symphony to immense acclaim during a concert tour of the Soviet Union; and (very important) a Communist Party plan to recruit artistic intelligentsia led to more support for previously marginalized composers. Same Lady Macbeth of Mzensk received a successful revision and revival by the Kirov Theater, which began hiring the composer to write updated orchestrations of classic operas.
Buoyed by his success, Shostakovich spontaneously began writing works, including a cello concerto which he announced on June 6, 1959. Some 44 days later, he completed the piano reduction of the complete work and contacted star cellist Msitslav Rostropovich. It turned out that Rostropovich had been hoping for years that Shostakovich would write him a concerto. Shostakovich’s wife, however, had warned that the composer was very upsetting and tended to be less than receptive to requests for commissions like the one Rostropovich wanted to do. With the spontaneously written concerto completed, however, Rostropovich wasted no time, traveling to Leningrad to take delivery of the score on the night of August 2, 1959. The cellist and his accompanist worked hard, returning to Shostakovich’s four days later. later with the song already stored.
Although Shostakovich’s artistic future brightened in the post-Stalinist period, earlier experiences led him to proceed with caution. First, Rostropovich and Shostakovich privately celebrated the first musical reading by buying vodka and snacks. Then the concerto was performed privately for the Union of Soviet Composers, which received it warmly on 21 September. Then, on October 4, 1959, the premiere of the public concert was given by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, with Mravinsky conducting and Rostropovich playing cello. : a resounding success. Two days later the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra made a recording of the concerto, followed three days later by a famous concert – again with Rostropovich on cello.
Stalin’s death had repercussions far outside the USSR, including a temporary meltdown in Soviet-American relations. In this more promising environment, Rostropovich crossed the Atlantic Ocean to perform Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 with the Philadelphia Orchestra on November 6, 1959. Legendary conductor Eugene Ormandy conducted the orchestra and Shostakovich himself even was in the audience. The orchestra proceeded to record the concerto the following month, under the careful supervision of Shostakovich, and since then the cello concerto has not left the repertoire.
The Saint Paul Orchestra performs Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 (Julie Albers, cello) and Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge in three concerts on Friday May 6 at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. and on Saturday May 7 at 8 p.m. All performances are at the Ordway Concert Hall in Saint Paul, MN.