Shostakovich Centennial Concert

The New York Philharmonic on Thursday, September 28.

Like many orchestras, the New York Philharmonic performed a concert in honor of the 100th anniversary of composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s birth. The program notes focused on the debate about Shostakovich’s relationship to the Soviet government, and that, too, was probably fairly universal from orchestra to orchestra. The story of Shostakovich’s rocky musical career is too dramatic for any writer to resist.

Twice denounced by Stalin—the first time at the onset of the Great Terror—Shostakovich nonetheless survived to write numerous symphonies, string quartets, concertos, operas, and other works that entered the canon not only in his homeland but in America and Western Europe, too. The Soviet regime used much of his music as propaganda—and Shostakovich accepted and even encouraged that—but later musicians and historians have argued that some of his compositions were actually subversive, satirizing rather than celebrating Soviet aesthetic ideals and burying coded anti-government messages into his music.

The debate is fascinating, but I think it distracts from Shostakovich’s music. That’s unfortunate because, as the Philharmonic demonstrated Thursday night, Shostakovich’s music is thrilling—essentially romantic but enlivened by a vivid use of repetitive motives and a delicious crunch of chromatics. The Philharmonic’s selections—the cello concerto and the fifth symphony—are a joy to experience whether they contain subversive messages or not.