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Archives for April 2007

Is it loud enough yet?

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra | 22:16 UK time, Thursday, 12 April 2007

We're all back in harness, after the holiday, playing Shostakovich's shattering 8th symphony, and I thought I'd scatter a few fresh morsels in your direction.

Maybe you've read in the earlier blogs about our escapade in Aviemore. This was huge fun music making, and a great day out (driving through the highlands on a beautiful day is not what most people can do for a living). We all shared desks with bright eyed pupils. There were ranks of string players as far as the eye could see, and right at the back, Donald Goskirk, who left us in 1972 to teach in Brora. A row of eleven flute players – I ask you. I haven't heard the recording – it'd better do justice to the incredible effort, enthusiasm and high standards that went into the whole project..... If you've checked out the other blogs you'll realise that there's a chance for you – whoever you are – to come and join us in similar way in the BBC's 'Play it Again' project. Would someone please take the opportunity to come and sit beside me and show me once and for all how the hell to play the damn thing!

End of term projects and stuff were abounding that week. The Glasgow Schools Symphony Orchestra (orchestras, string groups, choir – hundreds of them) were doing their thing in the City Hall on the Monday. Now here's funny: their string group was doing Bloch's Concerto Grosso, not a piece many of you'll know, which has an important obligato (posh word) piano part. The young lady who was to play it took ill, in mid-exam, in the morning. One of the viola instructors heroically took her place at the very, very last minute. (Which all goes to show what I always said: violists are very important people – if only they would stop playing violas). What no-one realised is that the very next morning we were doing the same piece on the same stage, and our pianist had gone off ill........ If you're a pianist, and see the Bloch piece on a schedule somewhere – clear your diary.

Back to Shostakovich 8. Actually, back to Mahler 9. Shostakovich was mightily inspired by it, and all Mahler. The long agonizing first movement, dances and marches linked as middle movements – transmogrified into nightmarish exaggerations, the long and slow ending – un-resolved, questioning. Several big conductors have been known to say that this is his greatest symphony – but, then, it doesn't have a triumphal conclusion, and so it is not well known, and was even suppressed between its premiere in '43 and the thaw in '56. I've written recently about the terrifying dangers that he, and everyone at that time, faced. This hardly bears thinking about, let alone talking about; which could be another reason why this work is not often done. He had witnessed the siege of Leningrad and been part of a horror that none of us could possibly imagine, a horror that makes the London blitz seem like a Sunday school picnic. The authorities wanted another victorious shout like the 7th symphony (which is even louder and longer and became a rallying cry for the Russian cause around the whole world). Subsequently, they lamely labeled the 8th 'The Stalingrad' – after another famous picnic. He was ambivalent about getting the new piece played, because he knew it would just bring him trouble. He had lived through the worst of the Stalinist purges in '38. What could that have been like? Without our historical perspective he wouldn't have known that Stalin was achieving a higher butchery-per-minute rate than the young upstart Hitler ever managed. But he lived with the constant threat to his career and his very life. All this happening within a span of five years, and he was expected to laud out how wonderful everything was. Since his death it has become quiet clear that he intended this music to be just as much an indictment of Stalin as a scream of agony about the war. There's even a demented 'vamp' in the viola part that is supposed to represent the authorities stamping on the people (useful violists!). But, when most of your friends and colleagues have already had the knock on the door.....
This scream, at its loudest, is in the first movement. It returns near the end of the last movement. It's a crucifyingly painful dissonance. I don't apologise for that adjective. It is meant to hurt you, it is not entertainment, it is meant to leave you cowering. Incidentally, has anyone else noticed the huge cetacean roar from the brass that follows this dissonance, it is remarkably like the brass fanfare used in 'This is Your Life'! Ouch. A sort of atavistic precursor. That's an irony that Shostakovich would have absolutely loved – though his face, behind the fag smoke, would not have shown it. And he didn't write a happy ending; the music disintegrates into what can be no more than a choking optimism for the future.

I'll lighten up a bit to finish. Noise levels have worried our employers, not to mention us, for some time. Next week we are playing Walton 1, Belshazzar, and Rach 3 piano concerto – all loud enough to do damage. Since European H&S officers (big men with beards and clipboards) have realised that we are subjected to sound levels that are above the legal limit, we have all been striving for a solution – unsuccessfully. The law requires that employers measure sound levels, advise us of any dangers, check that we are not being damaged, and then protect us from those dangers.......? Don't be surprised if you turn up one day soon and see us all with strange hi-tech ear plugs sticking out of our ears.

Anthony Sayer

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