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Shostakovich and My Inner Koi Pond of Love: Alexander Toradze, Carl St. Clair and the Pacific Symphony

Pacific Symphony Logo
Pacific Symphony Logo
When I was a young music student living in the commercially driven City of Fallen Angels, I often lamented the demise of classical music's popularity and wondered how to attract the masses back to the concert hall, especially as classical music education became less and less common. Add some multi-media flair seemed to be what I came up with back then, and that is exactly what the Artistic staff of the Pacific Symphony did for their Decoding Shostakovich concerts as part of a festival in conjunction with Chapman University. I attended the January 30th, 2014, as a guest of a musician in the orchestra. Arriving early i was lured by the lobby displays. Silent film clips running, in between time lines of Shostakovich versus Stalin topped with paper cut-outs of the Kremlin reminiscent of gingerbread houses. A metallic flat describing musical cryptograms as were
used by Shostakovich to represent himself, complete with interactive magnets to make your own cryptogram. A lovely gift shop benefiting the Pacific Symphony's educational programs, with charmingly overzealous sales ladies. And two young Russian soldiers in uniform, "Dimitri" and
"Ernst" on "security detail". For a second i even bought in to it (or wanted to anyway), but then saw the sign saying they were performed by Chapman students Matt Davis and James Trocme.
Once inside the relatively new Segerstrom Hall for the first time, sitting in the orchestra section, I felt like a cherry in the bottom layer of a scrumptious wedding cake, with delicious white frosting balconies swirling on either side of me. A wedding cake with extraordinarily "live" acoustics.
The first half of the program was the multi-media section. Conductor Carl St.Clair cuts a striking figure on the podium, with his sterling hair and poised demeanor, and yet he was also quite personable as he spoke to the audience through the hand held microphone, explaining Shostakovich's experiences in the Stalin dominated Soviet Union. Actor David Prather portrayed Shostakovich, sitting on stage delivering mini monologues in between pieces with a very genuine, believable pathos expressing the relentless grief. A screen above the orchestra helped further narrate the events. The musical selections were a bit of a sampling, starting with the Interlude II from "Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District", a rousing, rambunctious, carnival explosion, with a fantastic vibraphone lead. It was then explained to the audience that Stalin did not approve of this piece by Shostakovich
and demeaned it as "neurotic music" and "cheap clowning". (In my world being called a clown is a compliment, but I suppose it wouldn't go over well in the world of "proper Soviet Art" at the time) One would think though, in this day and age, and in this town, anyway, to be so degraded, would only further one's career (it worked for Miley Cyrus). Any publicity is good publicity, right? But in Shostakovich's time, to have Stalin be so publicly disgusted by his work made him an "Enemy of the People". He feared for his life, St. Clair said, sleeping with a suitcase by his bed. From that point on every note Shostakovich wrote was scrutinized. Apparently
he managed to redeem himself after writing the 5th symphony, so the orchestra played the opening bars and final coda of it. Then it was time, for what was to me, the highlight of the concert.
For the record, I am not a music critic, nor ever wish to be one, for I find it
to be pure audacity to sit back on one's resting laurels issuing out condemnations while a skilled virtuoso, who has spent a lifetime honing their craft, day in and day out, is "up there" baring their soul and skill. 
I can't imagine though, even the most embittered music critic being able to find anything negative to report about the Second Piano Concerto performed by Alexander Toradze, clearly one of the great living Russian pianists, and the Pacific Symphony. Bursting onto stage he reminded me of a Joyful Buddha. The woodwinds opened the piece with Toradze tripping alongside them. Such personality was in his fingers, and yet such machine
like precision, I could feel his fingertips dancing inside my cochlea, climbing, commanding, crawling with the piccolo cheering him on. Lightning in a cloud of sound, raindrops zig-zagging against gravity. The audience wanted to applaud after the First Movement whether or not they knew the proper protocol. And then came the Second Movement, the Highlight of the Highlight. It felt to me like a Koi Pond of Love.
("what is that?" the musicians afterwards asked, to which I can only answer
"the Second Movement of the Shostakovich piano concerto played by the Buddha of Piano"). A gentle sea of tenderness.  The Pianissimo of Pianissimos.  It was almost unreal how soft he could play. I wanted to close my eyes and sigh, a caress of music. I almost groaned, totally immersed, despite the heavy breathing of the elderly man to my left and the restless leg syndrome of the urban homeboy to my right. (they know how to attract a diverse audience indeed)
Then into the playful final movement, a kaleidoscope of circus colors from the respected and renowned Russian circus. 
(Shostakovich had written the piece as a birthday gift for his son, who premiered it at the Conservatory)
Immediately after he plunked out his last note, Toradze hopped up and hugged Maestro St. Clair. A standing ovation ensued.
At intermission I ran into a buddy of mine from the LA Phil. I didn't want to tell him I was switching my groupie allegiance from his band to the Pac-Symph.
After intermission, the 10th Symphony, and nothing but the 10th. It is reported that Shostakovich began to work on the 10th shortly after Stalin died in 1953.
"My symphonies are tombstones" he was quoted to say. The first movement by far feels the longest. It was as if he captured the neurons of a depressed brain in the music. The anxious internal sobs, a silent scream inside the head. A lone clarinet above the strings like a stream of serotonin, and an exposed piccolo to end it. In the second movement it was as if the military
forces of Stalin (talk about Narcissistic Personality Disorder gone awry) were coming down in bombastic tyranny, violence and brutality.
It zipped through on to the third movement, which possesses a striking French Horn solo almost like a hunting call.
And the final movement starting in an Andante into Allegro flew to the end greeted by another standing ovation.
All these years in the hills of Tinsel Town, I had no idea what an Ace of an Orchestra lay behind "The Orange Curtain", to use the affectionately derogatory term my hipster friends might use for the OC which
I quote only in reference to the evening's theme.
I only wished they had served complimentary vodka throughout it all.

For further information on the Pacific Symphony's season visit their website at:
http://www.pacificsymphony.org/
the concert was generously supported by Catherine and James Emmi.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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