strung out
                  my life as an amateur violist

   I see god (with help from Dmitri Shostakovich)  |   # k

  As I get more distance from those first six months as a violist, it becomes increasingly hard to believe they actually happened. I acclimitized to the new instrument and the new clef (alto) quickly through a mindgame that countless other violin-to-viola converts must have certainly used. When reading alto clef on the viola, as your hand is in first position you trick your fingers into playing the notes as if you were still on the violin in the treble clef in third position. Get it? O.k., well the upshot is that it worked. ;-)  Within a few weeks I was an actual asset to the section.  

The excitement of a new instrument was compounded by the anticipation of the upcoming European Tour. I had never been to New York City or Europe and was jazzed at the prospect.  

We were in a heavy repertoire building phase as we prepared for the Winter Concert. Our February 1984 performance would be billed as the first leg of our international tour. The program contained the key works to be featured on the road. One of these had me a little worried. Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.  

In all honesty, most symphonic music written before the twentieth century doesn’t often test the technical abilities of the violas. Patience? Yes. Endurance? Yes.  But not technically challenging. Shostakovich, however, lived and wrote in the first seventy years of this century and understood how to utilize every section of an orchestra to weave his magic.  

Two elements of Dmitri’s life weigh heavily in his music. First is his lifelong work as a composer of music for Soviet film. Shostakovich’s music is rich with the drama, action and imagery one might expect of a talented producer of film scores. (The music at the end of both Alien and Aliens is vintage Shostakovich sound.)  Secondly, in spite of his lifelong allegiance to the Party, he was whipsawed relentlessly from the role of prized artist to scapegoat of Party bureaucrats.  

His Fifth Symphony was inscribed “an artist’s reply to just criticism”. A few holdouts believe that he was earnest in his contrition, but most of us hear sarcasm in that inscription, especially given passages in the work that that sound an awful lot like withering satire of the Soviet state’s clumsy, intrusive ways.  

I have neither the training nor the expertise to fully unpack this masterpiece for you, but suffice it to say that Shostakovich transcends his subject matter and speaks to the anguish, frustration, tragedy and triumph one experiences as a solitary individual in the machinery of modern society.  

The viola part is both exhilirating and terrifying. The symphony begins with a brooding suspended theme that passes from section to section. On the second page, the viola section gets a soli shot at the melody. It soars up and up and up -- all the way up to the ninth position. Ninth position is unfamiliar altitude for most violists. We’re talking oxygen canister action here. Other sections of the symphony are treacherous as well, but this is Everest, right here in the first five minutes.  

The closer we got to the performance the harder we worked that passage. It is completely exposed and in a register in which the slightest intonation error is obvious to a layperson. Imagine troupes of tightrope walkers taking turns high above. If it’s done well you can’t spot the ones who aren’t accustomed to the height, but you can bet they are feeling it!  

It was a cold February evening as we plodded through the backstage entrance and prepared to scale the colossus. We were all a little freaked out. Kim, our section leader, informally gathered some of us from the section and led us through the solo. It was a true bonding experience. We were headed to the front lines and the stakes seemed very high: a sold out 4,000 seat hall and the launch of an international tour.  

It’s hard for me to describe that night. I’m one not given to hyperbole, but I don’t know if I will ever experience anything of that intensity and drama again in my life. It doesn’t depress me to say it. It was that powerful.  

What unfolded that evening was 110 young musicians fully and utterly committed themselves to the telling of a story. A performance of any kind is an attempt to bring new life to an idea birthed by its creator. For us it felt as if this was the first time this music had been unleashed.  Shostakovich, in that mysterious process of creation, gave shape to his feelings and thoughts with melody, rhythm and harmony.  What could have come out as vindictiveness and self-pity, instead plays out to reveal his conflicting sentiments of grief, disbelief, playfullness and hope.  From the page we took up his rendering of those feelings and thoughts and made them our own. When an artist speaks to you in such a way, there is a closeness, a kinship that is unlike any other. And in giving life to the music, you give life to the composer and in turn open the experience to the audience.  

The re-creation of this musical epic required a certain degree of daring on the parts of many and the risk only seemed to make each section more keenly aware of what had to be done. I’ve heard the tape, technically there are a few unpolished bits, but the conviction in that performance is complete.  

As the the Fifth Symphony dashed towards a triumphant and hopeful finale  , the string section sawed away madly at a single repeated note and the winds and brass rode the crest of the aural wave.  I looked up towards Mr. A as he was spurring us onward, faster and upward. 

[It should be noted that the composer himself left behind notes that his original intention in the finale was to convey a sense of oppression.  And at the slower tempo he indicates, it does.  Leonard Bernstein was among the first to conduct the finale at a much faster tempo which has the effect of completely transforming the doom to triumph.  Fitting perhaps given the way history played out.  Rob , thanks for pointing this out.

Glen Gould was a genius pianist infamous for humming/moaning along with the music in almost a tuneless chant as he played. He couldn't contain the music within his arms and fingers -- he had to let it out from the center of his chest. You can hear it on many of his recordings.  Mr. A was singing amidst this great sea of sound in much the same way.  

As we came crashing to the end, I felt as if the entire orchestra was rising, straight up 40 feet above the stage. In my minds eye I could see thousands walking a road together. I am not making this up and was not under the influence of any drugs not naturally produced by the endocrine system.  It was both an intrinsicly shared experience and intensely personal; I will never forget that moment.  

Before the final chord died away, the audience roared to their feet and cheered, jolting me out of my reverie.  

An artists reply to just criticism? The thought police unwittingly served as catalysts for the greatest symphonic creation of the 20th century, misinterpreted satire as contrition, and Shostakovich walks away to the praise of all. Oh, vengeance is sweet, but vengeance with artistry is divine


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