Springfield Symphony Orchestra

Opening Night

68th Season

Saturday, October 1, 2011 at 7:30 PM

Kevin Rhodes, Conductor

Axel Strauss, Violin

Rimsky-Korsakov - Russian Easter Overture

Tchaikovsky - Concerto for Violin & Orchestra

Shostakovich - Symphony No. 5



Opening Night began with warm applause greeting the Maestro at the pre-concert conversation and concluded with enthusiastic applause and cheers for Rhodes’ skillful conducting of the remarkable Springfield Symphony Orchestra.

In Rhodes’ Reflections, he wrote: “It does feel fitting... to be beginning my second decade with the orchestra . . . with a theme that will run throughout our season . . .– music from the 20th century whose historical context has meaning for us today.”

He focused on Shostakovich’s “incredible” 5th Symphony. He cited the three-note motif “that’s all over the place and attests to Shostakovich’s compositional skills.” He semi-joked that “you’ll leave here humming this tune. Trust me.” To strengthen his boast he said, “This is not scary modern music.” Further, his on-going study of Shostakovich has convinced him that “the composer is absolutely a romantic.”

During the last half of the conversation, five SSO musicians joined the talk. Some have been with the orchestra for three decades and one for three weeks. When they spoke of their favorite music and cited why, a new energy was released. Rhodes referred to the “shop talk, insider stuff.” Encapsulated was the complex life of a musician, the time involved to improve ones skills, the special attributes required to, at the least, stay current.

A half hour later, the assembled audience stood to sing our national anthem. Thanks to news that more terrorists were rendered into harmless enemies, we tuned into the concert with more than 20th century symphonies on our minds.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture opened the program with so much authenticity that by the ending, there’d been, it seemed, a celebration of attitudes – the pomp and passion of Easter worship by one contingent that was out-distanced the next day by high-spirited pagans energized by a devil-may-care agenda.

The translucent beauty of Peter Ilyrich Tchaikovsky’s Concerto for Violin & Orchestra in D Major soothed our souls from the Allegro into the Canzonetta and through the Finale. Our “guide” was violinist Axel Strauss, about 30, slender, high forehead, attractive. “In 1998, he was the first German artist ever to win the Naumburg violin award.”

His poise, self-confidence were evidenced by his playing of the familiar first few bars. He caressed the music. During long pauses, he remained within the music, seemingly enveloped by the music generated by the SSO. He listened intently. He’s been performing this concerto since he was 17 and yet dollars to Wiener Schnitzel, it’s possible that during the long minutes his violin was quiet, he could have detected something for the first time. There were several passages when the bowing challenged the speed of sound. How could the strings sustain such stress without snapping? (Sometimes, they don’t.) The beautiful concerto, overflowing with sensitivity and affection, composed by a man who battled depression and personal demons, kept the audience enthralled. They tried their best to entice Herr Strauss to play a brief encore but had to be satisfied with two curtain calls and the memory of a young artist performing a near-flawless concerto. (Nobody’s perfect, right?)

At intermission, I spoke briefly with Axel Strauss in the lobby. “Thank you,” I said. We shook hands. His grip was extremely strong but it didn’t hurt. A friend’s opinion was the violinist needed a strength that was flexible. Only minutes ago, he had played with great force and with precise delicacy, mastering the technique of placing notes no thicker than a whisper.

Prior to beginning Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Maestro Rhodes wanted to impress upon the audience the stress Shostakovich was under while composing the symphony. By 1937 the staging for the inevitable next war (World War 11) was already underway. Dissidents were not tolerated. Siberia was not a vacation destination. When the Soviet hierarchy was displeased – and it was, severely so, about his most recent earlier work, the opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtzensk District” – it was not unusual for the USSR to retaliate: heads might roll, literally. From the program notes: “For the first of many times, Shostakovich was cast into Soviet limbo, his music unperformed, his livelihood withdrawn and his life in jeopardy. In later years he recalled that he was so certain of being arrested that he ...slept with his suitcase packed near the front door so that if the secret police were to pick him up, they would not disturb the rest of the family.”

There was such wild enthusiasm at the 1937 premieres (Moscow and Leningrad) that suspicious minds questioned musicians, conductors, friends, so hellbent were they on unearthing a conspiracy. The official seal of approval was not bestowed until after a private performance for the benefit of the authorities survived inspection. They may have been more perplexed than before because of the weaving in of passages which overflowed with sadness – a Soviet no-no; the rules called for light and bright, the better to drown out the elephant on the concert stage.

Those melancholy passages ooze unspeakable despair. Hidden in plain sight are outbreaks of brutality – the killing of terrified people or the trampling of a meadow that had been filled with bobbing wild flowers. The sharpness of a snare drum suggests combat troops, changing nature’s bucolic beauty into the ugliness of war. Unbidden mind pictures burst forth from the composer’s cache of painful scenes. Where as, a colorful, romantic haze blanketed peaceful memories of Mother Russia (far more peaceful in retrospect than in historic accuracy). During the third movement (Largo), a painful reverie arose from the second violins, until all the strings joined in, and the mournful rustle muttered, “Abandon hope all who enter here,” the deadly thoughts underscored by artfully created playing of single notes from reed and piano.

During the fourth movement (Allegro non troppo) false gaity is unleashed. Shostakovich is giving dunderheads what they want and think they are getting. Kettledrum! Brass, including an assertive tuba. Even a major key! Just listen to how happy we are. NOISE! And a melody intrudes, a lament of the past, the strings are crying. Something is building in the bowels of the earth. Strings keep playing – persistently. From the piano, three notes. A minor key. Bold major hymn-like brass. Those three signature notes, repeated six times.

Shostakovich, playing for his life, outwitted the fools. Their orders called for happy music. Loud isn’t automatically synonymous with happy. Even the elephant knows that.

The audience in Symphony Hall recognized they had been willing captives of a well-balanced program, professionally rendered by dedicated musicians.