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Comrades in Ardor: LPO Tackles 20th Century Russian Composers

by Joe Shriner

Here’s a question for you: What do Shchedrin, Schnittke, and Shostakovich share in common besides having names beginning in “s” that are hard to pronounce? All three are prolific 20th century Russian composers who lived under Soviet rule. All three orchestrated passionate music incorporating elements of irony and dissonance. And all of them had the ability to create moods that could best be described as deeply emotional and, well, funereal.


If there’s anything New Orleanians love, it’s a good funeral.


On Saturday, April 6, these doyens of Russian modernism will get their Crescent City due as the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra tackles works by each: Shchedrin’s Concerto for Orchestra No. 1, Schnittke’s Viola Concerto, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9. Conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto and featuring internationally acclaimed violist Roberto Díaz, the concert kicks off at 8 pm at the Mahalia Jackson Theater.


Upon hearing Rodion Shchedrin’s farcical 1963 composition, Concerto for Orchestra No. 1 “Naughty Limericks”, the first thing you may notice is the American influence. With it’s jazzy bass, booming percussion, soaring strings, and explosive woodwinds; the piece is reminiscent of the more daring movements in Bernard Hermann’s North By Northwest soundtrack, though even more jumbled and playful as it blends a number of Russian folk melodies.


While no less complex, Alfred Schnittke’s Viola Concerto swings to the other side of the emotional pendulum. This concerto, completed in 1985 just days before Schnittke suffered his first of a series of strokes that resulted in a transformed life and writing style, marks the end of an epoch for the composer. Later he would remark how the piece had predicted his fate, saying, “Like a premonition of what was to come, the music took on the character of a restless chase through life ... and that of a slow and sad overview of life on the threshold of death.”


The difficult piece makes demands on the orchestra and, undoubtedly, the audience alike. Divided into three movements, the piece begins sorrowfully, moving into loud and pummeling chaos, and ending with a protracted and somber lament.


Joining the LPO for this grueling concerto is renowned violist Roberto
Díaz. Currently holding the position of President and CEO of the Curtis Institute of Music, Díaz has performed with numerous orchestras and chamber ensembles all over the world. He was principal viola of the Philadelphia Orchestra for ten years, principal viola of the National Symphony, member of the Boston Symphony, and member of the Minnesota Orchestra. Díaz also has several recordings on the Naxos label, including a 2006 recording of viola transcriptions by William Primrose, which was nominated for a Grammy Award.


Dmitri Shostakovich’s name is probably the most famous of the three Russians in the lineup, and his Symphony No. 9 fits somewhere in the middle of the first two regarding its emotional depth. In 1945 when the symphony first premiered, Russia was celebrating victory over the Nazis in World War II and feeling a heightened sense of patriotism. It was expected that Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony would echo this spirit with fanfare, trumpeting Stalin’s success. But this was far from what the composer had in mind. Weary of the war and of Stalin’s brutality and self-satisfaction, Shostakovich’s Ninth is a mocking piece, brimming with disillusion and resentment. In its five short movements, it manages to transform a post-war celebration into a dark circus, turning the pretense on its head and exposing Stalin and Soviet leaders as nothing more than clowns.


Typically, an ambitious program of music like this, made up entirely of works that are unfamiliar to the average audience, would be anathema to promoters of similar sized orchestras who would fear jeopardizing ticket sales. And in hands of a less competent orchestra or conductor, demanding compositions like these would be out of the question. For the LPO, however, this is simply a continuation of an already existing trend to challenge itself with new and difficult music, and to bring the audience along for the ride.


Tickets start at $20. For ticket information, visit the LPO website or
call (504) 523-6530.


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