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Deep in the shadow with Gergiev

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 made me feel guilty to be well-fed, warm, and safe

Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra made a special stop in San Diego. - Image by Aline Paley
Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra made a special stop in San Diego.

Thursday morning, October 25, was grey. It was the most appropriate morning the San Diego climate could muster after what happened the night of Wednesday, October 24, at Symphony Hall. That evening defies the written word.

Shostakovich on the cover of Time magazine, July, 1942.

As I ran a few early morning errands I gradually became enraged at the futility of our abundances. We all have more than enough but what are we doing with it?

I began to contemplate the grotesque elements of America’s obesity “epidemic” as I watched a pedestrian ooze across the street. This individual was walking but wasn’t very good at it. I watched a sprightly young fellow bound across the street, courier satchel full of essentials. Everything about him suggested that he was on his way somewhere to do something.

“No, my friend,” I observed. “You’re on your way nowhere to do nothing and that satchel full of essentials is a millstone tied around your neck.”

Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra are on tour and they made a special stop in San Diego. The concert was completely sold out, as is right.

We had a sextet of young opera singers start the concert with the “Libiamo” from Verdi’s La Traviata. The piece wasn’t listed and came as a complete surprise. What wasn’t surprising is that the singers were excellent. They confirmed that there is no school like the Russian school of opera singing. They are the best.

The singing was over too soon. I wanted more—until Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra lit the fuse on the rocket that is Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila. The orchestral brilliance intensified what is already exciting music.

The Mariinsky musicians left the stage and the San Diego Symphony musicians walked on and perform Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia. Our San Diegans played well. Borodin’s delicate and serene textures can be a challenge, but the performance was beautiful in technique and tone.

Now we come to the part that had me questioning why Thursday morning existed at all. Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 made me feel guilty to be well-fed, warm, and safe. I tried to summon a sense of gratitude for my secure existence but Gergiev and Shostakovich wouldn’t allow it.

As the performance expanded I was bowled over by the combined forces of both the San Diego and Mariinsky orchestras as both ensembles we’re required to meet Shostakovich’s orchestration. Yet every time I began enjoying the sonic brilliance of the performance I remembered the circumstances of the composition and my enjoyment evaporated.

This concert was not about enjoyment. It was about something more.

Shostakovich started composing the symphony before Hitler invaded Russia. He completed it during the siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg). 900,000 people died in the struggle. When, in the finale movement, the strings began to steer us toward the triumphant conclusion, I distinctly felt as though it was too late. Yes, the victory was there but it was too late. I had been taken deep into the shadow and had no intention of rejoicing in the sunlight.

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Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra made a special stop in San Diego. - Image by Aline Paley
Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra made a special stop in San Diego.

Thursday morning, October 25, was grey. It was the most appropriate morning the San Diego climate could muster after what happened the night of Wednesday, October 24, at Symphony Hall. That evening defies the written word.

Shostakovich on the cover of Time magazine, July, 1942.

As I ran a few early morning errands I gradually became enraged at the futility of our abundances. We all have more than enough but what are we doing with it?

I began to contemplate the grotesque elements of America’s obesity “epidemic” as I watched a pedestrian ooze across the street. This individual was walking but wasn’t very good at it. I watched a sprightly young fellow bound across the street, courier satchel full of essentials. Everything about him suggested that he was on his way somewhere to do something.

“No, my friend,” I observed. “You’re on your way nowhere to do nothing and that satchel full of essentials is a millstone tied around your neck.”

Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra are on tour and they made a special stop in San Diego. The concert was completely sold out, as is right.

We had a sextet of young opera singers start the concert with the “Libiamo” from Verdi’s La Traviata. The piece wasn’t listed and came as a complete surprise. What wasn’t surprising is that the singers were excellent. They confirmed that there is no school like the Russian school of opera singing. They are the best.

The singing was over too soon. I wanted more—until Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra lit the fuse on the rocket that is Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila. The orchestral brilliance intensified what is already exciting music.

The Mariinsky musicians left the stage and the San Diego Symphony musicians walked on and perform Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia. Our San Diegans played well. Borodin’s delicate and serene textures can be a challenge, but the performance was beautiful in technique and tone.

Now we come to the part that had me questioning why Thursday morning existed at all. Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 made me feel guilty to be well-fed, warm, and safe. I tried to summon a sense of gratitude for my secure existence but Gergiev and Shostakovich wouldn’t allow it.

As the performance expanded I was bowled over by the combined forces of both the San Diego and Mariinsky orchestras as both ensembles we’re required to meet Shostakovich’s orchestration. Yet every time I began enjoying the sonic brilliance of the performance I remembered the circumstances of the composition and my enjoyment evaporated.

This concert was not about enjoyment. It was about something more.

Shostakovich started composing the symphony before Hitler invaded Russia. He completed it during the siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg). 900,000 people died in the struggle. When, in the finale movement, the strings began to steer us toward the triumphant conclusion, I distinctly felt as though it was too late. Yes, the victory was there but it was too late. I had been taken deep into the shadow and had no intention of rejoicing in the sunlight.

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