In the mid-20th century, American politicians saw subversion in popular music, from the anti-capitalist stanzas of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” to Malvina Reynolds’ anti-nuclear “What Have They Done to the Rain?” to Bob Dylan’s counterculture manifesto “Blowin’ in the Wind.” But in the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin feared the power of classical music to undermine the party line, and his deputies carefully policed even the most illustrious Russian composers.
Lapsing into atonality or dark, unresolved dissonance—the lingua franca of western avant-garde music of that era—could send a composer to the gulags of Siberia or an untimely demise.
Two years after the end of World War II, Dmitri Shostakovich started writing a large-scale concerto for the brilliant Russian violinist David Oistrakh. As he was completing the Violin Concerto, Stalin launched another vitriolic attack on Soviet composers, with Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Khachaturian placed conspiculously at the top of his list of musical malefactors.
All of the composers made abject public confessions, and Shostakovich sagely put his complex—though hardly atonal—new Violin Concerto into his desk drawer and never took it out until Stalin was two years securely in his grave.
Friday (March 1) at Copley Symphony Hall, the young Japanese-Canadian violinist Karen Gomyo and the San Diego Symphony under Music Director Jahja Ling gave an exhilarating performance of this work, Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No.1 in A Minor. An elegantly structured, four-movement concerto of generous symphonic proportions, it mightily tests the soloist’s stamina as well as her technical prowess.
From Gomyo’s consistently powerful, rich tone to her discerning direction of the composer’s serpentine phrasing, she passed those tests with flying colors. In the saturnine Nocturne that opens the concerto, she sustained an apt sense of eerie mystery, yet quickly changed her color and attack for the rowdy Scherzo. Ling and the soloist roared through this movement at a clip that sometimes left the orchestra panting to keep up.
But the orchestra under Ling shone in the stately Passacaglia, savoring the composer’s unusual combinations of solo instruments and individual sections of the orchestra. The maestro chose a measured pace, allowing us to appreciate its impressive counterpoint and dark, modal progressions.
In the daunting, extended cadenza that bridges the last two movements, Gomyo wisely began with understatement, steadily building to the climactic fury of double-stop pyrotechnics that crowns this transition. The finale, a mildly satiric Burlesque, found soloist, orchestra and conductor working in tight ensemble, racing across the finish line to loud approval from the audience.
Balancing Shostakovich’s dark, probing Violin Concerto with Antonin Dvorak’s sunny Symphony No. 6 in D Major looked[php snippet=1] perfect on paper, but worked less well in real time. Musical theater loves the “cockeyed optimist,” but Dvorak’s cheery, bucolic vision in this symphony struck me as overly facile. Maybe we should have heard these two contrasting works in reverse order.
In any case, Ling and the orchestra gave a winning account of the Dvorak Sixth Symphony, save for the hard edge of the string sections that weighted down the third movement Furiant. It was also the least synchronized of the four movements.
Modest Mussorgsky’s Introduction to his opera Khovantschina opened the concert. Like Dvorak, he admired the folk music of his people, and this airy prelude gives a charming folk melody to a number of first chair soloists before it quietly fades away.