You are here
Home > Arts > PREVIEW: Shostakovich, Britten, and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra

PREVIEW: Shostakovich, Britten, and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in 2015. Photo by Ash & James Photography.

How long does it take to learn a cello concerto? If you were Mstislav Rostropovich, the Soviet cellist for whom Dmitri Shostakovich composed his Cello Concerto No. 1, the answer is “4 days, memorization included”. Even at just under half an hour, its four stirring, contrasting movements make this an especially an impressive feat.

For the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, which presents Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 on May 6th and 7th, that half hour duration means that a partner piece is required to make a full concert. In this case, that is Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge – a piece that also came together with great speed, with its first sketches completed in 10 days. These Variations catapulted Britten in 1937 from a locally known composer of instrumental pieces and artsy, low-budget film scores to an internationally rising star.

Britten wrote Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge as a commissioned work for the 1937 Salzburg Festival, which had debuted in 1920 to promote international cooperation through music and theatre. (Today, the festival is one of the most prestigious music-theatre festivals in the world; the Trapp Family Singers of Sound of Music fame also sang there in 1936.) As part of its post-First World War mandate, the festival practiced deliberate inclusion, with its 1937 organizers inviting the British surgeon-turned-conductor Boyd Neel to bring his orchestra of London conservatory alums. One of the conditions of Neel’s contract was that he would give the world premiere of a new work by a British composer.

Neel was not a man who took the “traditional” path. After all, he had decided to study orchestration and conducting while continuing a busy surgical practice. Thus, Neel’s normal schedule included literally going back and forth between conducting concerts and delivering babies in the hospital, with time set aside for a fair bit of film score recording. Nevertheless, his orchestra gave numerous regional premieres of works by continental composers, as well as the first-ever recording of the Simple Symphony by Benjamin Britain – a man then in his early twenties. A second engagement brought them together in 1936, when Neel conducted Britten’s film score for Love From a Stranger, an Agatha Christie adaptation starring Ann Harding and Basil Rathbone.

After receiving his contract for the Salzburg Festival, Neel decided to approach Benjamin Britten: would he like to compose a piece for a prestigious international festival. Britten quickly accepted, deciding to pay a tribute to his own composition teacher Frank Bridge, adapting some of the latter’s music as the core of what would become a 27-minute Theme and Variations for orchestra. Its 10 variations explore a theme from Bridge’s Three Idylls for String Quartet (1906).

While Britten came of age as a musician in the decade before the Second World War, the other composer on next weekend’s program almost lost his career during this time. Dmitri Shostakovich first entered the Petrograd Conservatory in the early years of the Russian Revolution; by the time he graduated, his works were being performed in the rapidly shifting environment of Soviet arts politicization and censorship. Shostakivch’s First Symphony (1919) imitated Stravinsky and Prokofiev, premiering to great acclaim. His Second Symphony, premiering in 1929, pursued this line of modernity, while incorporating a grand choral finale praising the Bolshevik Revolution. However, the combination did not land well with critics, including scathing criticism from the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians.

Composer Dmitry Shostakovich in 1925. The composer had the misfortune to embark on his career during a period of rapid and unpredictable state control of the arts in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, causing many hiccups in his career.

Shostakovich’s hot-cold reception would be a hallmark of much of his career. On 17 January 1936, Joseph Stalin made a rare excursion to what is now the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, to view the opera. His hosts praised Shostakovich’s work, encouraging the dictator to return the following week to see the premiere of Shostakovich’s new opera Lady Macbeth of MtsenskStalin did so – but was so off-put by the opera that he and his entourage left without a word. The following day, the official newspaper Pravda published a devastating critique of the composer’s music, leading to a 25-year performance ban on the opera. (Today, it is the fourth-most-produced Russian language opera, and regularly in the top 75 most-produced operas in the world.)

Shostakovich’s break, so to speak, came after Stalin’s death in 1953. In the following decade, he composed many of his most popular works, including the Tenth Symphony; the New York Philharmonic performed his Fifth Symphony to tremendous acclaim in a concert tour of the Soviet Union; and (very importantly) a Communist Party plan to recruit the artistic intelligentsia led to more support for previously marginalized composers. Even Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was given a revision and successful revival by the Kirov Theater, which started hiring the composer to write updated orchestrations of classic operas.

Flush with success, Shostakovich started writing works spontaneously, including a cello concerto that he announced on June 6, 1959. Some 44 days later, he finished the piano reduction of the complete work, and contacted the star cellist Msitslav Rostropovich. Rostropovich, it turned out, had been hoping for years that Shostakovich would write him a concerto. Shostakovich’s wife, however, had warned that the composer was very contrarian, and tended to be less-than-receptive to commissioning requests like the one Rostropovich wanted to make. Once the spontaneously written concerto was complete, however, Rostropovich wasted no time, traveling to Leningrad to take delivery of the score on the night of August 2, 1959. The cellist and his accompanist worked furiously, returning to Shostakovich’s house four days later with the piece already memorized.

Although Shostakovich’s artistic future was brightening in the post-Stalinist period, prior experiences had led him to proceed cautiously. First, Rostropovich and Shostakovich privately celebrated the first musical reading by buying vodka and some snacks. Next, the concerto was performed privately for the Union of Soviet Composers, which received it warmly on Setember 21. Then, on October 4, 1959, the public concert premiere was given by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, with Mravinsky conducting and Rostropovich at the cello: a smashing success. Two days later, the Moscow Philharmonic made a recording of the concerto, followed three days later by a celebrated concert performance – again with Rostropovich at the cello.

Stalin’s death had repercussions well outside of the USSR, including a temporary melt in Soviet-American relations. In this more hopeful environment, Rostropovich crossed the Atlantic Ocean to perform Shostakovich’s Cello Concert No. 1 with the Philadelphia Orchestra on November 6, 1959. The legendary conductor Eugene Ormandy led the orchestra, and Shostakovich himself was in the audience. The orchestra proceeded to record the concerto the next month, under Shostakovich’s careful supervision, and since then the cello concerto has not left the repertoire.

The Saint Paul Orchestra performs Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 (Julie Albers, Cello) and Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge in three concerts on Friday, May 6 at 11 AM and 8 PM, and on Saturday, May 7 at 8 PM. All performances take place at the Ordway Concert Hall in Saint Paul, MN.

Basil Considine