Listening to World War 2 In a Very Large and Beautiful Room

While I have heard orchestras at ballets and at operas a number of times, with great pleasure, I had never been to the symphony per se till Friday. I saw that there was a double bill of Gershwin “opening” with a delightful concerto of 1930 era urban music, and SHOSTAKOVICH whom I’ve always been drawn to, as the “headline” composer, with his Symphony No. 8 Op. 65–so we had to go. This was the Oakland symphony (a town thirty percent African American but the only black person I could see on stage was the conductor– to be fair, trained and talented orchestral musicians aren’t a dime a dozen, they’re relatively hard to find) and they did a sublime job in a sublime venue: the Paramount Theater, a beautiful art deco theater from 1930.

The Gershwin piece we heard, “opening”, was his Concerto in F. Listening to it I felt wasn’t just a musical poet of the teeming, clamorous city, he was witty about it, somehow, even teasing at times: you can see the people strutting about in your mind’s eye; or standing late at night under a streetlamp, deciding if they want to go home; energized and melancholic and rueful by turns, perhaps even flirtatiously tipsy.

The conductor explained that the Gershwin was partly chosen to soften the blow, so to speak, of the Shostakovich number, the symphony being a bit grim for some people. It was composed in 1943 and is largely about battles (and civilian suffering) in WW2 as the Nazis attempt to overrun Russia and the Soviet people pay a terrible price to defeat them. The conductor said that it tacitly reflected the terrible choice–let the Nazis conquer them and be stuck with Hitler or defeat them and be stuck with Stalin! The politboro didn’t approve of the symphony because it was not “triumphal” enough–it is, purely in music, about the horror of war, about human struggle, and then about life going on, not about the Triumph of the USSR.

The setting, the orchestra, the music–it was splendor. Micky Shirley and i enjoyed it enormously. It was a reminder of the better part of civilization, the way the event was carried out, and I was chagrined to see that 75% of people in the audience (the concert was nearly sold out) were quite elderly. It made me wonder, “Dying art form?” But then did I go to the symphony when I was young? No. Sometimes the ballet, but never a symphony, though I did listen to Stravinski and some others… By the way the last concert of any kind I went to before the symphony was Le Butcherettes and the Melvins. Quite a contrast–and so it should be. Every art form has its own appropriate (or appropriately inappropriate) response.

The Shostakovich symphony (another orchestra) on youtube:

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