Sound Investment

On Friday, November 17, 2006 the NZSO celebrates Shostakovich’s 100th anniversary in the Wellington Town Hall. Who cares? 


Listener: 18 November, 2006. 


I love a live symphony orchestra: the electricity of the concert hall sound; my eye identifying key instruments for my untutored ear; those inelegant sawings, bangings and puffings (harpists aside) that come together in a glorious sound (bit like the market, really); the challenge of old favourites and composers done differently; the discovery of new ones. 


The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra introduced me to Russian Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75), one of the 20th century’s greatest composers. 


He is an example of an artist (or, for that matter, an economist) living in a hostile environment, be it repression by the state (Shakespeare faced censorship) or by the market (Van Gogh died in poverty). He was twice denounced by Stalinists. On both occasions he then denounced himself. Was it out of fear for himself and family? Was he a secret dissident, encoding criticism of the Soviet regime in his music? 


“The truth is more complex,” said Tzenka Dianova, of the University of Auckland’s School of Music, to a pre-NZSO concert lecture. “Shostakovich, despite his displeasure with Soviet censure, would have been honest in his desire to create an ‘art for the people’. 


“For a person brought up in a modern democratic society, it might be hard, even impossible, to fully understand what it meant to live under communism, especially during Stalin’s dictatorship. I grew up in Bulgaria, a satellite of the Soviet Union, and directly experienced some of the best and the worst of both worlds. My grandfather spent eight years in a Stalinist work camp for political dissidents. Back then and there, things never seemed as black and white as pictured nowadays in the West. People, artists included, did not simply divide into political dissidents or petty souls. No matter what ideology was being imposed, no matter how twisted it was, it nevertheless was the dominant ideology of the day. One’s refusal to accept it resulted in isolation. People were taught that individualism was one of the worst sins, and that one should lead a life and create the kind of art that was beneficial to the whole society, not only to selected groups of individuals.” 


Ultimately, Shostakovich was a Russian patriot. Perhaps the regime tolerated him as a “yurodivy” – a holy fool – providing he did not step too far out of line. So his chamber music, played in private, is more “avant garde” than his concert hall symphonies. 


But a work of art is open to multiple interpretations. Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony recalls the failed 1905 revolution. My 1988 Czech recording has a first movement of the happy crowd outside the Winter Palace in St Petersburg; the soldiers gun them down in the second; the third is an elegy for the thousand who died; and the final movement signals the triumph of the 1917 Soviet revolution. But when in 2004 the Romanian-Israeli Yoel Levi conducted this “1905 Symphony”, the NZSO sounded more menacing (the timbre of timpani in a concert hall?), while the fourth movement was no longer triumphant but questioning. 


Which did Shostakovich mean? A symphony to celebrate 1917 on its 40th anniversary – or a lament for the Soviet repression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising? Does it matter? It’s a great symphony. 


Should the state fund my pleasure and learning? Currently, the public subsidy amounts to about $85 per bum-on-seat, although that excludes the NZSO’s contributions to musical education, local composing and Concert FM. Over the next six years, the government will spend considerably more on the Rugby World Cup. Hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders play music and rugby, or watch and listen. The NZSO and the All Blacks are each at an apex of international excellence of all that activity. When the NZSO performed at the prestigious Amsterdam Concertgebouw last year, the packed audience gave it a standing ovation. 


I am a pragmatist. The market won’t deliver excellence by itself. If we really want it, there has to be some government funding. My grumble with the NZSO is the empty seats. Fill them with young people for free, seducing them, as I was, into a lifelong enjoyment of the magic of a concert hall. 


<>Concert FM rebroadcasts the NZSO concert at 8.00pm on November 27, 2006