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Shostakovich: Festive Overture, Piano Concerto No. 1, Symphony No. 5, Yefim Bronfman, piano, San Francisco Symphony, Mstislav Rostropovich, conductor, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 22.3.2006 (HS)

The concert was over, the big chords of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 having brought the audience to its feet, and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich was doing something extraordinary. Not content to give the orchestra musicians their traditional solo bows by acknowledging them from the podium, he waded into the sea of musicians to pull each principal to his or her feet, one by one. He planted two kisses on the cheek of cellist Michel Grebanier, which left the veteran section leader beaming at such public recognition from one of the 20th century's great cellists.

Returning to the stage for a solo bow, Rostropovich picked up the dog-eared scored from the conductor's stand, kissed it and held it high. Finally, bypassing the concertmaster's chair, he grabbed the hand of a pretty young violinist and led the orchestra off the stage.

To say that Rostropovich has a flair for the dramatic is to understate the case, but he had already proven that by leading a rip-snorting performance of this all-Shostakovich concert. Truth to tell, it wasn't perfect. There were lapses of articulation here and there, and even the final notes of the symphony found the timpanist and bass drummer going "ka-thunk" instead of hitting that last beat together. But the big strokes, the gut feeling of the performance, had an honesty and power that were irresistible.

In this, the composer Dimitri Shostakovich's centenary year, many orchestras have chosen to feature his music. And there has been plenty of discussion of the composer's enigmatic relationship to the Communist regime under which he lived, often in fear of reprisal. Stalin famously blasted some of Shostakovich's music, even writing a commentary in Pravda that thuggishly threatened that the composer's career (or perhaps his life) could "end badly" if he didn't shape up and quit writing such decadent music. It is impossible today not to hear this composer's work through the prism of his political cat-and-mouse game with the Soviet authorities.

This particular program, the first of two weeks of subscription concerts led by Rostropovich, comprises works that found favor with audiences and the powers that be in the Soviet Union. The Festive Overture, written in 1954 the year after Stalin's death, brims with joy. He wrote the lively, often-comical Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1933, while he was at work on the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, before that opera provoked Stalin's commentary. And the Fifth Symphony was his public response to the Stalin criticism.

On the surface, the work is a classic "triumph" symphony moving from an ominous opening to a majestic peroration on the final pages. Reams of commentary have been written since, analyzing whether Shostakovich was serious about this or if he had coded into the work a sense of parody, mocking the apparatchiks by giving them the kind of music they wanted but hiding within the notes a sardonic commentary on their shallowness. If he meant it that way, it fooled them then, and it still gets audiences with its sheer power.

Rostropovich, who turns 79 on March 27, actually studied with the composer at the Moscow Conservatory in the 1940s. In conducting the work, he hews closely to the score's markings, giving the first movement plenty of portent, drawing arresting contrasts between its shadow and the light of the quiet, suddenly shimmering moments of string interlude. The short scherzo has a gently sardonic mien, leading to a largo of uncommon warmth and unexpected grace.

The finale, with its jaunty marches and big moments of massed brass, can seem totally artificial if the conductor wants to bend it that way, or it can feel sincere and glorious. By slowing down the tempo to give it just enough of a ponderous gait, Rostropovich achieved a sort of optical/aural illusion, like one of those images in which two faces suddenly look like a fancy goblet if you stare at the image long enough. In my mind, this is just what Shostakovich would have wanted.

One of the strong points of this traversal was the seamless nature of Rostropovich's tempos. Every phrase moved organically into the next, but there was also a welcome sense of surprise, of a discovery lurking around every corner. For a piece heard as often as this one, the performance delivered both freshness and restlessness.

The concert opened with the six-minute Festive Overture, for which extra brass players were stationed above the stage left and right to add weight to the final repeats of the fanfare that starts the work. The sound was thrilling, but Rostropovich gave equal attention to the lively melodies and the cinematic orchestral balances. He may be approaching 80, but he moves like a man half his age, and it shows in the vivacity of the music making.

The piano concerto, a crowd-pleaser packed with references to Bach, Beethoven and Haydn, stands as one of this composer's sunniest works. It's a challenge for the pianist, who often enters with short bursts of tumbling scales and acrobatic phrases, but Russian-born Yefim Bronfman sailed through the work. He gave the music a brittle texture, rhythmically taut but not as buoyant as some soloists.

Rostropovich kept the orchestra on a fast path, making this a fleet performance that ebbed just enough to give the parts that flowed more oomph. The opening scales zipped by in a flash, and the interplay with the solo trumpet (brilliantly voiced by Glenn Fischtal, the orchestra's associate principal) had the requisite dry wit. The Bach-like counterpoint of the slow movement came as a welcome moment of seriousness before the fun of the finale. The galop-like rondo had me chuckling nonstop for its wicked humor, and the pianist's barrel-roll jazz phrases just before the finish (which Bronfman played at a breakneck clip without error and without missing any of the rhythmic whoosh) had me laughing out loud. This was a performance of tremendous brio and élan.

If this was the sunlit side of Shostakovich, Rostropovich's second program next week explores some darker corners, including the thorny Violin Concerto No. 2 (to be played by Russian-born concertmaster Alexander Barantchik) and the big choral Symphony No. 13 "Babi Yar." It remains to be seen if the strong communication and responsiveness of the first program will be enough to carry off this tougher music.

Harvey Steiman




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)