Shosty vs. Stalin, Pressley vs. Capuano, V.S. Naipaul vs. the World

This Week: Shostakovich with Andris Nelsons, MT Anderson, Elizabeth Wilson and Valerie Kuchment. Listen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.

Conor Gillies: This was my first real exploration into the world of Shostakovich, and let’s just say I’m fully on the Shosty Train now and will be listening closely for years to come.

Going into production on this hour (which started last spring!) I only really knew the famous 8th string quartet — written in Dresden “for the victims of war and fascism” — and the 7th symphony — the premiere of which, in Leningrad during a Nazi siege in World War II, goes down as one of the all-time performance stories, up there with the Rite of Spring’s premiere in 1913.

These works form an outline of Shostakovich: a composer of deep, melancholic, angular chamber music on the one side and, on the other, expansive, sometimes grotesque, and dynamic symphonies — picking up on the styles and form of Mahler and Stravinsky. A committed anti-war person and anti-fascist, a giant of the USSR, whose music conveys the full range of emotion along with ideas of revolution and internationalism (titles of his symphonies include: To October, The First of May, The Year 1905, The Year 1917).

What a joy to hear Shostakovich now as conducted by our guest, the BSO music director Andris Nelsons, who grew up in soviet Latvia and carries himself a bit like the composer (at least as I imagine him): boyish, very humble, somewhat introspective. We heard him in rehearsal mode at Symphony Hall back in March, practicing the 4th Symphony ahead of the performance in Tanglewood, Friday, August 17th (GET TICKETS!)

Andris Nelsons: “I’m simply absolutely privileged to perform and record these symphonies with Boston Symphony Orchestra and share with the audience. And I’m I’m just a Shostakovich lover and that’s all.

CL: Don’t be too modest. You are the conductor that many millions of people will hear, defining Shostakovich for them. What do you call the Andris stamp? What would you like people to hear, to feel with your recordings?

AN: It should not always sound terribly scary; there are also moments where you feel it’s comforting me as well, and it’s comforting me because this man who lived in this time experiencing these terrible disasters, but he managed to bring through the hope, and if he could do that then we with our relatively less problems, we can certainly do it. The music it talks to everyone really; there is always somewhere in the world where maybe somebody needs help or needs support..We should not pretend that there are no problems…I think we should address them and I think through music we can; the music really helps to to address the problem, and it also helps to heal and to comfort.”

The story of Shostakovich deepens around the 4th Symphony: He wrote it after being condemned in a shocking review in the official soviet newspaper Pravda, for making “formalist” “muddle instead of music” — “forced to borrow from jazz its nervous, convulsive, and spasmodic music.”

Julian Barnes built a novel, The Noise of Time, around this episode. He portrays a man searching for universal art but suppressed by politics. Barnes’s account is well-written, impressionistic, and quite sad: The story of an artist searching for a transcendent art for art’s sake under a government that demands towing the line of socialist realism — or death. We interviewed the source for his book, a woman named Elizabeth Wilson, who wrote an invaluable oral history and biography of the composer.

The horror of Stalinism — which betrayed the workers’ state that rose to power in 1917 and destroyed countless artists, intellectuals, and writers — can’t be understated, and may very well be condemned in Shostakovich’s own music. As Andris Nelsons points out, in the final moments of the 10th Symphony, written shortly after Stalin’s death, you can hear Shostakovich’s own initials (in musical notation form) signaling a triumphant cry: “You’re dead, but I’m alive!”

But does Shostakovich’s anti-Stalinism mean he’s a secret liberal? In researching this show, there’s a caricature I observed, and which Richard Taruskin has pointed out in a review of The Noise of Time: that of the “sentimental Cold War fable of a passive, pathetic yet saintly figure buffeted by an obtuse, implacable force” — Shostakovich as a tragic figure, a “pawn in Stalin’s clutches,” “browbeaten” into joining the Communist Party (while hiding anti-communist codes in his music). In this view, which mainly surfaced during the so-called “Shostakovich Wars” of the ’80s, the composer becomes foremost a victim and a sufferer.

The story of Shostakovich navigating the terrifying political terrain of the USSR — in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, especially — is truly remarkable and sad. But I hope that in recovering the Shosty Story, we affirm a side of him you hear less about: the exuberant, ironic, playful Shostakovich, the Shostakovich of film scores, experimental music, and satirical operas, and a true socialist. This is the Shostakovich of timeless, abstract piano music and string music — which seems to yearn toward infinity, and even an afterlife, as Nelsons tells us in our interview — but also a symphonist who cheekily incorporated folk elements, “drunken Russians” (according to another guest, the violinist Valeria Kuchment), and even swear words in the music.

Hope folks enjoy our program. Be sure to check out the BSO’s ongoing Shostakovich CD series “Under Stalin’s Shadow.” For the chamber music, search on YouTube for Shostakovich played by the Borodin Quartet or Beethoven Quartet. Finally, make sure to track down our office favorite, Keith Jarrett playing Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues.

Listening: Bill Evans — American Shostakovich

Zach Goldhammer: As Conor and Chris finished up the Shostakovich show, I was struck by the connections between Shosty and the American jazz pianist and composer Bill Evans — the subject of a long biographical essay by Steve Silberman in The Believer’s new music issue.

For one thing, there’s an immediate physical resemblance between the two men. In photographs, you can see variations on the same shy, muted stare shielded by thick-rimmed glasses and fixed on some unseen worry.

There’s also the piano music: both men, from opposite banks, waded their way towards the “Third Stream”— the somewhat mythical middle ground between the classical and jazz traditions. In Keith Jarrett’s 1992 recording of Shostakovich’s 24 piano preludes and fugues, you can almost hear Bill Evans ghost hovering above the keys.

Biographically, both men have long been caricatured as great sufferers, though the source of Evans’ suffering was more chemical than tyrannical. Sub in heroin instead of Stalin and you can see Evans’ long decline—which music critic Gene Lees called “the longest suicide in history”—runs roughly parallel with Shostakovich’s own extended torments. While Shostakovich may have been a victim of rigid artistic and political constraints within the USSR, Evans’ story is the tragedy of what happens to artists who are left vulnerable to the whims of market demands. Evans struggled to find an audience for his music in his later year; unable to keep pace with the commercial shift towards rock music. He spent his last two decades in debt and died penniless in a pool of blood at a Manhattan methadone clinic.

Silberman’s essay revisits many of the familiar low-point in Evans’ life, but also manages to free him from his tragic biography by focusing on one song, “Nardis.” The song—which was written but never successfully recorded by Miles Davis— became a kind of unresolved artistic koan for Evans, constantly revisited throughout his career. As Silberman writes:

By maintaining a singularly intense focus on “Nardis” over the course of his career, Evans managed to turn the melody … into a vehicle for dependably accessing “the mind that thinks jazz,” like a homegrown form of meditation that could be performed on a piano bench before rapt audiences in clubs night after night. By bringing the story of Evans’s quest for a kind of jazz samadhi to light, I hope to understand the enduring hold that “Nardis” has on the ever-widening circle of musicians who play it, while reckoning with my own personal fixation.

Reading the full essay while listening to the various recordings of “Nardis” now available on Spotify is a deep experience which I highly recommend:

Coming Up: Pressley vs. Capuano

On Tuesday, we took a trip out to UMass Boston to watch Congressman Michael Capuano debate his primary challenger, Boston City Councillor Ayanna Pressley. The MA-7 race is a strange one and many are now comparing Pressley’s insurgent campaign against the veteran progressive to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s underdog victory in NY-14. The comparison doesn’t quite hold up here as it’s hard to tell where exactly — in terms of policy—Pressley distinguishes herself from Capuano. It’s also hard to paint Pressley as an outsider given that she cut her teeth working for John Kerry and was a surrogate for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign.

In terms of rhetoric, Pressley absolutely won the debate on Tuesday. Her responses were confident and clear in moments where Capuano seemed hesitant and equivocating. Her full-throated support for the “Abolish ICE” movement was quickly turned into a widely-shared soundbite; a sign that the Democratic Party—in deep-blue districts, at least—is ready to move further left:

It’s also clear that Pressley wants to be seen as a “movement” politician— she made many references to “movements” and “organizing” as the foundation of her politics. She name-checked local groups like Centro Presente—stars of our own immigration show—as key influences on her rhetoric. Still, it’s unclear to see what degree politicians like Pressley, who came up through the traditional party establishment, really are accountable to movement orgs. Beyond the question of whether or not she can win, activists may be interested in this race as a test-case for whether or not they really can influence concrete policy shifts through electoral politics. How would a “movement politician” legislate in a way that substantively differs from Capuano’s relatively strong progressive record?

We’re planning to walk the walk with both candidates next week. Send us the questions you want to hear answered in MA-7:

Mary McGrath: On the bigger scene, the Times made a nifty interactive map of the 2016 election. Dial up your precinct and make some bets.

Goodnight Sir Vidia

“A walking sack of contradictions,” Dwight Garner writes in his NYT obit. Chris Lydon says “he was kind of impossible, something of a racist and maybe a profoundly unhappy man. But what he could do with a sentence.” Chris talked to him in 2010 and also sends along this post from the 2018 Calabash literary festival with Derek Walcott beating Sir Vidia to death in the ring.

This ‘n That

David Bromwich’s latest installment on the Trump presidency, American Breakdown. C.J. Chivers on War Without End. Naomi Klein and Kate Aronoff, among lots of others, say Nathaniel Rich missed the story in his 30,000 word opus on climate change in last week’s NYT mag. It’s capitalism, stupid.

Summah in the City

Enjoy the last gasps, folks. Send us your hopes and dreams for the fall, or at the very least some show ideas and people you’d like to hear from. We’re working up our list, which Conor is calling the ROS Ideas Festival 2018–209.

Til next week,

The OS Orchestra



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Radio Open Source

Radio Open Source


An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.