September 15, 2013

By Thomas O’Connor

Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich

Excitement is in the air at Santa Fe Pro Musica as we prepare to begin our new season! So much time and preparation goes into making each season a meaningful musical experience for you, our audience. As I write, orchestra members are preparing their parts, Joy is selling tickets from the box office, our educational program directors are getting the ball rolling for this season’s programs, and I, myself, am preparing for our upcoming Season Opening concerts by studying the score of the Shostakovich’s Concerto in C Minor for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra, an activity which has given me such pleasure that I am all too eager to share my discoveries!

This piece is idiosyncratic in so many ways: the scoring of the piano, trumpet and strings is unusual. Apparently, Shostakovich intended to compose a trumpet concerto but changed his mind and included trumpet in this piano concerto. What good fortune for trumpeters!

Another thought that strikes me is that this concerto is such a reflection of the 1930s and the era of silent movies and cabaret shows. In addition to film scores, Shostakovich was skilled in silent movie accompaniments, and that style of madcap energy is everywhere in this concerto. Shostakovich is a master of parody, borrowing themes from other composers, and even himself in some cases, creating a rapidly changing palate of moods reminiscent of the era of piano or organ silent movie accompaniment.  In one brief section at the opening of the fourth movement, Shostakovich quotes Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Rossini’s Barber of Seville and a Haydn piano sonata, all in rapid succession! Adding to the high jinks, toward the end of the fourth movement in a brief piano cadenza, Shostakovich uses the Broadway show tune “California Here I Come,” sung originally by Al Jolson in the 1921 production of Bombo. If the Soviet authorities knew that tune, I have to wonder what they thought he meant by such a blatant reference.

One of the aspects of this concerto that I love so much is the connection Shostakovich makes with Beethoven. In the opening theme of the first movement, he uses the same three-note motive Beethoven uses at the beginning of his Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 “Appassionata.” While Beethoven immediately begins to build drama, Shostakovich spins the motive out in a theme that is both wistful and soaring. Comparing the censorship that both composers endured in their respective countries and times, it is interesting that Shostakovich chose this theme and its connection to Beethoven. There are plenty of interesting parallels in their careers, considering the repressive political climates with which both composers had to contend. In the fourth movement piano cadenza, Shostakovich uses Beethoven’s Rage over a Lost Penny, adding to the humor and wit of this extraordinary cadenza.

The madcap frenzy that characterizes the outer movements is set in contrast to the beautiful slow waltz Shostakovich weaves in the second movement. Here, the trumpet has a starring role with a beautiful muted solo, akin to the sentimental and reflective trumpet writing of Kurt Weill. In the final movement, the trumpet rings a persistent martial rhythm to bring the piece to a rousing conclusion.

This is a great concerto, and I love it. It will be such great fun to perform with Conrad Tao, Brian Shaw, and the Pro Musica Orchestra. Can’t wait.

–          Thomas O’Connor, Santa Fe Pro Musica Music Director and Conductor

© Santa Fe Pro Musica 2013

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