Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider

On November 5th and 6th 2021, Stéphane Denève and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) presented a concert that opened with a powerful work of personal lamentation and ended with a gripping and ultimately horrifying depiction of life under an autocratic regime run by a personality cult centered on a morally bankrupt and violent ideologue. In between we had a violin concerto that evoked images of pines, snow, and brisk northern winds.

[Find out more about the music with my symphony preview.]

Denève conducts Emotive Transformations

It was dark, disturbing, and engrossing. And I loved it. A live HD video recording of that concert, with some illuminating commentary from Maestro Denève, is now available from the orchestra’s web site through August 31st 2022.

The lamentation comes from the opening work, “Emotive Transformations,” written in 2018 by Michigan-born James Lee III. Inspired by the death of the composer’s father the work, as Stéphane Denève said in his pre-concert talk back then, can he heard as referring to the five stages of grief described by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying”: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

“Emotive Transformations” opens with an agitated theme that suggests the first two stages of denial and anger. A second, more soothing motif in the strings and winds hints at “comforting words” according to Denève, but to my ears it also could include the “bargaining” stage. Denève described a third ascending theme in the strings as a reference to resurrection, and I’m inclined to agree, although you could just as easily say it’s about acceptance.

Either way, that last theme is almost overwhelmed by the opening sense of anger and agitation. Indeed, it eventually takes over the “comfort” theme entirely, turning it into a kind of wail of anguish (depression, possibly?) which slowly descends through the string section and is extinguished. The initial theme returns again, but now it has taken on the character of the acceptance music, rising triumphantly to a final major chord.

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider

It all sounds a bit like Strauss’s “Death and Transfiguration,” but the resemblance is at best superficial. Lee’s musical world is more compact and less sentimental than that of Strauss. His musical vocabulary is unquestionably contemporary, but still listener-friendly—a hallmark of the new music that Denève has introduced to local audiences. And it is beautifully played by Denève and the band, with a shout-out due to Principal Clarinet Scott Andrews for the tranquil start of the resurrection/acceptance theme.

Up next is the Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 47 by Jean Sibelius. Originally presented in 1904 and then, after a thorough drubbing by critics, premiered in a substantially revised form in 1905, the work is deeply informed by the composer’s love of his native Finland’s forests and striking but somewhat forbidding landscape. I have always found it to be a dramatic and often emotionally intense piece—qualities that are communicated very effectively in the deeply committed and finely shaded performance by Denève and soloist Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider.

Close friends outside of the concert hall, Szeps-Znaider and Denève have often performed the Sibelius concerto together, a fact which lends an air of intimacy to the performance and often produces the illusion that you are hearing the music of, in the words of novelist Jasper Fforde, “two minds with but a single thought.”

Denève conducts the Shostakovich Fifth

Szeps-Znaider’s virtuosity is clearly on display in the challenging first movement cadenza and the galloping final movement, but his technique is always deployed in the service of Sibelius’s dark, passionate soundscape. It is, as well, always completely in synch with Denève’s nuanced approach to the work.  The many video closeups make it possible to see Szeps-Znaider at work in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a live concert.

The dark soundscapes of Sibelius are almost tropical compared to the harsh, cold winds that blow through the final work of the evening, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor. Written over the course of three months in 1937 it was, at the time, seen as an attempt by the composer to get himself off of Stalin’s blacklist, since being on it was likely to end not just his career but his life. He even went so far as to accompany the first performance with an article in the Moscow newspaper Vechernyaya Moskva titled "A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism"—lest there be any doubt that he had Learned His Lesson.

It worked. Official response was enthusiastic, and Shostakovich was officially rehabilitated. Even in the West the work was, well through the 1960s, seen as an example of unabashed pandering to mandatory patriotism. As more details began to emerge about what composer’s private thoughts might have been about the fifth symphony, critics and conductors began to realize that something much darker lurked beneath the brilliant orchestration, memorable tunes, and apparent bombast of the Allegro non troppo finale.

That something was a portrait of the grim reality of life in a one-party state run by a mass murderer and his ethically challenged enablers. "Many in the premiere audience were seen to weep openly," wrote Richard Freed in his liner notes for the SLSO’s 1986 recording of the work. "They wept, Shostakovich himself felt, because 'they understood; they understood what was happening around them and they understood what the Fifth was about.'"

These days, performances of the symphony are more likely to emphasize that dark side. Denève’s certainly does. Conducting without a score, he delivers a Fifth that beings with a cry of pain in the strings, followed by snarling march from the brass and percussion sowing death and destruction. The first movement ends with nobody left to tell the tale except the harp and celesta (Allegra Lilly and Peter Henderson, respectively, in a beautifully tragic duet) quietly commenting on the smoking ruin of the battlefield.

Finale of the Shostakovich Fifth

And so it goes for the next three movements. The Allegretto is a lumbering waltz of storm troopers, briefly interrupted by graceful ballerina (Concertmaster David Halen, in a touching solo assisted by Lilly and flutist Jennifer Nitchman). She tries to return in a pleading English horn solo by Jelena Dirks but is ultimately banished from the scene. The Largo that made Russians weep is pure desolation, ending in tranquil string chords that fade to a silence which is violently broken, after only a brief pause, by the aggressive final movement.

Here, in a fusillade of blazing brass and pounding percussion, the Soviet bureaucrats heard triumph, affirmation, and apotheosis. And perhaps, in that first performance, conductor Evgeny Mravisnky made sure it came across that way. But, as Mr. Denève demonstrates, it only takes a few adjustments to reveal the coercion behind that triumph. The slow, relentless hammer blows of the percussion in the coda sound less like affirmation and more like a “tragic, forced smile,” as Denève says in his video introduction. The effect is both thrilling and horrifying.

Depending on the quality of your home theatre system, the sound on the video might or might not deliver quite the same emotional impact of the original performance, which left me in a state of stunned silence. It is, in any case, a brilliant reading which still leaves me with the uneasy feeling that I  have heard America’s future and its name is Dmitri Shostakovich.

This video is part of a series of recordings of recent live concerts. Ticket information and a complete list of videos in the series is available at the SLSO web site.

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